Elicker Confronts Clean-Elections Loophole

Paul Bass PhotoJustin Elicker vowed to run on “clean money” if he goes ahead with a campaign for New Haven’s mayor’s office.

A loophole in the city’s public-financing system may have put a wrinkle in his plans.

Elicker (pictured), an East Rock alderman, has formed an “exploratory” committee to start raising money and “consider” a run for mayor against fellow Democrat John DeStefano. He promised to play by the rules of the city’s “clean elections” Democracy Fund, which offers matching public money to candidates who limit the size of contributions they receive and refuse contributions from outside committees formed by special-interest groups.

Then Elicker ran into a stumbling block: The Democracy Fund considers pre-campaign “exploratory” committees like the one he set up one of those “outside” committees. So he’d have to spend all the money raised by an exploratory committee before he could officially declare his candidacy and start participating in the Democracy Fund.

Elicker called that a loophole that theoretically allows someone—like him—with an “exploratory” campaign committee could exploit. A candidate could bypass the clean-campaign program by “double dipping”: hitting up campaign contributors once during the exploratory phase and again during the official campaign.

That loophole goes against the spirit of the New Haven Democracy Fund, agreed the fund’s chair and its administrator, Anna Mariotti.  She said the loophole should be closed by aldermanic action, but a fix can’t take effect before the next campaign season.

In the meantime, the Democracy Fund is adopting a “wait and see” attitude, to find out what problems arise in the coming election year, said fund administrator Ken Krayeske. He discussed the situation this week with the fund board last week at meeting in City Hall attended by Elicker.

The fund has never had to deal with the potential complications that may occur this year, the first in which candidates with exploratory committees may take part in the city’s public financing system.

Both Alderman Elicker and State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield have formed exploratory campaign committees, allowing them to start collecting donations to support an eventual run.

Both candidates have expressed their intention to take part in the city’s Democracy Fund, which grants matching funds to candidates who abide by fundraising limits. To do so, they would have to first spend all of the money they take in during the exploratory phase, since the exploratory committee is considered an “outside” committee.

Therein lies the loophole.

As the rules stand, candidates could engage in a kind of “double dipping,” said Democracy Fund chair Mariotti. A candidate could raise money from contributors in the exploratory phase, spend it, then take in even more money from those same contributors while taking part in the Democracy Fund, she said.

“It bypasses the spirit of the ordinance,” Mariotti said.

“It’s clear that’s against the spirit of the Democracy Fund,” Elicker said.

Elicker said he has raised some money already through his exploratory campaign but has not been actively fundraising, out of a desire to abide by the spirit of the clean-election guidelines. He said he’s still considering all the implications of the loophole and hasn’t decided exactly how to proceed. “It’s an ongoing dialogue that we’re having.”

Holder-Winfield said he’s less concerned about the loophole than about “real issues”: schools, crime, taxes.

“I’m not going to make the fund an issue,” he said. “You’re either going to use it or you’re not.”

Holder-Winfield said he has long been a supporter of clean elections and will likely take part in the Democracy Fund. He said he’ll make final decision on that—as well as on whether he’s really running for mayor—by the end of January.

In the meantime, Holder-Winfield said he’s not concerned about raising more in his exploratory phase than the $375 per person that the fund limits campaigns to. “I’m not sure that too many people are trying to give me more than 300-plus.”

Mayor DeStefano, who’s running for an 11th two-year term, supported the creation of the Democracy Fund along with Aldermen Carl Goldfield and Jorge Perez as well as a number of their colleagues. DeStefano has since stopped participating in it. He argued that in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case, the Democracy Fund has become largely outdated. The Citizens United decision lets outside special interests basically spend unlimited money to help favored candidates in political campaigns, making it harder for even an opposing publicly-funded candidate from competing.

“The Citizens United decision has unleashed a flood of dollars from any number of sources that totally undermines the Democracy Fund both in spirit and practice,” DeStefano said.

“Any special interest that cares about school district politics, that cares about a property tax assessment or an economic development initiative or any public uses, could come in and just overwhelm anybody, any candidate anywhere just about.”

He said he still believes the Democracy Fund still “has value for people who can’t raise money” to enter races, though he called it a “tough sell” to spend a half-million public dollars on that “in these times.”

Even Lawn Signs

File PhotoDemocracy Fund administrator Krayeske (pictured) recently drafted a memo explaining the loophole problem Elicker cited and answering several other similar questions that have arisen.

After examining the ordinance that created the Democracy Fund, Krayeske determined that fund rules do not limit the amount of money a campaign can raise in an exploratory phase. But however much money is raised, it must all be spent before the campaign takes part in the fund.

And not just money: a campaign has to get rid of all assets on hand from the exploratory phase. That includes lawn signs and leaflets, Krayeske said.

Krayeske said the fund board would like the Board of Aldermen to consider a number of revisions to the ordinance that covers the fund, including transferring the ability to nominate fund board members from the mayor to the Board of Aldermen, or to community organizations.

The fund board would also like to have its own bank account, separate from the general city treasury, said Krayeske. “The board is more nimble than the machinations of the city’s finance department.”

The fund will have to address the loophole in the future, he said. “It will have to be closed and it should be dealt with.”

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posted by: SaveOurCity on December 24, 2012  10:17am

Once again - government’s answer to government problems is more government - - until someone finds a loophole and them we pay city administrators and lawyers to review and argue about the issue and come up with another half-baked solution.

Meanwhile, the entire system fails when big money DeStefano decides to ignore the system that he built because he can raise more money outside the system.

The big question for New Haven is “Will the citizens allow John D to buy the election again this year?” 

Stay tuned.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on December 24, 2012  10:26am

The question that needs to be ask is are they geting money from the corporate plutocracy which controls the crooked two party system.

posted by: David S Baker on December 24, 2012  1:16pm

This is a perfect example of the type of hurdle Elicker is going to encounter over and over in 2013; having to run an honest campaign against people willing to dismiss rules designed to level the playing field.  For guys like Elicker its not only about winning, it’s about HOW you win.  Its a tough row to hoe and I worry that most folks in this town don’t pay attention to those details, even though the way a person runs their campaign is a nearly perfect illustration of how they will lead if they win.

That said, Winfield, “You are either going to use it or you’re not.”  Very zen, but not an answer.  Whats next, “It is what it is.” ?

posted by: anonymous on December 24, 2012  8:31pm

DeStefano’s explanations ring hollow. 

And upstanding representatives like Holder Winfield should be more concerned with the fate of our democracy.

Glad that many citizens are paying attention to this issue.

posted by: East Rocker on December 25, 2012  3:57pm

Can someone please explain the reason why candidates set up exploratory committees?  Why not just set up a campaign committee?  What is the difference between the two?  Why not just set up a campaign committee to avoid this problem, and then, if they decide not to run, disband it.

posted by: cp06 on December 28, 2012  1:00am

@East Rocker:

It seems, from the article, that this may be the reason:

“A candidate could bypass the clean-campaign program by “double dipping”: hitting up campaign contributors once during the exploratory phase and again during the official campaign.”

posted by: Christopher Schaefer on December 28, 2012  9:05am

New Haven is controlled by a one-party politburo which engorges itself upon political patronage while serving up an exclusive menu of political correctness.  Our city budget is based on receiving large amounts of cash from a state govt. that is broke and ranked among the most ineptly-run in the country. So, regardless of whoever wins the next mayoral election, New Haven residents shouldn’t expect much of a difference in terms of city services, crime, education or property tax relief. And, of course, no one will dare ask more fundamental questions such as “What is the purpose of government?”—because the status quo is all that New Haven knows. I wish Sundiata Keitazulu well. He represents authentic Government of the People. But alas, not being a member of The Machine, his candidacy has as much chance as the proverbial snowball in hell.