Justin 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 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
Democracy 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.”