More than half of New Haven’s white voters considered public-financing important in the recent mayoral election. More than half of black and Latino voters didn’t.
Those results came from mayoral candidate Justin Elicker, who offered a debriefing at the most recent meeting of the Democracy Fund—the body that administers New Haven’s first-in-the-state mayoral public-financing law.
When he ran against Toni Harp for mayor and other candidates in 2013, Elicker chose to use the voluntary Democracy Fund, which offers matching public money for candidates who agree to cap individual donations to $370 (rather than $1,000) and to forswear contributions from political committees. Harp (the eventual winner) chose not to participate in the voluntary system. The Democracy Fund became its own election issue and sparked conversations about corruption, political favors, and clean government.
Two months after a contentious mayoral election, the Democracy Fund board finds itself still grappling with the same question it asked during the election cycle: what will make people care about the fund? Elicker attended this past Thursday’s monthly board meeting of the fund to weigh in.
After handing the fund a $1,235 check – the leftover money he had from his campaign that he raised on his own – Elicker discussed results of a phone poll his campaign conducted last July. He distributed results of one of his campaign question: “How important to you is it that the next mayor uses public financing in his campaign?”
The results of the poll showed that white voters seemed to care more about the use of the Democracy Fund than black and Latino voters.
Sixty-four percent of white voters who were polled said they thought it was “very important” or “somewhat important” that the next mayor use public financing. Only 46 percent of black respondents and 43 percent of Latino respondents said the same thing.
Only 17 percent of white people said they did not know enough about the issue to answer the question; 28 percent and 38 percent of black and Latino respondents answered the same, respectively.
Getting the Message Across
The Elicker campaign polled 450 voters by phone. Elicker (pictured at the Thursday board meeting) explained that those who have previously voted are more likely to vote in future elections, so the campaign used public data about who had voted in previous elections to guide its efforts. Beyond likelihood to vote in the election, the sample was random.
Democracy Fund Board member Gerry Martin pointed out that 55 percent of the respondents in total called the Democracy Fund very important or somewhat important. He termed those numbers “better than expected” and “a place to start from.” However, no one during the meeting explicitly addressed the racial divide.
“While it appears from this data that more white voters feel the Democracy Fund is important, I don’t know why that is. It might be a messaging thing; I’m not sure,” Elicker said. “We can talk a lot about how you interpret this data.”
Instead of interpreting the data, though, the board moved on to talk about other issues surrounding the Fund.
The racial divide also arose during November’s Democracy Fund board meeting, when fund Administrator Ken Krayeske (at left in photo) brought up a conversation he had had with Elicker and mentioned his poll. When Krayeske shared the finding that white voters found the Democracy Fund more important, board member Tyrone McClain, who is African-American, said that result was “not surprising” to him.
He mentioned in passing that the Democracy Fund message likely resounded with voters in Elicker’s ward, which covers East Rock as well as Cedar Hill and a slice of Fair Haven: “His message of public finance – you don’t need a lot of money to penetrate that neighborhood with that message; they get it automatically,” he said.
Part of the problem, McClain argued, was the fact that some people see the Democracy Fund as coming at the expense of other parts of the budget, such as social programs. Mayor Harp made that argument during the campaign. She said she agreed with the Democracy Fund as an idea, but claimed she declined to participate because of the city’s tight budget situation. Proponents of public-financing argue that it save taxpayers money by guarding against costly paybacks to campaign contributors.
Reached after the meeting, Elicker said any efforts to explain the poll’s racial finding would be “speculation.”
Learning from Elicker’s Experience
Elicker told board members that one of the biggest issues they face is public perception. A good portion of the city still doesn’t know what the Democracy Fund is. Others view it as providing candidates with an unfair advantage.
“There’s this myth that the Democracy Fund is there to enable people that couldn’t raise enough money to be a viable candidate to run,” Elicker said. “I think that reputation can discredit what the Fund is trying to do and discredit a participating candidate, because people say that candidate is only participating in the fund because they couldn’t raise money on their own.”
The board had a debate and discussion about the threshold: In order to qualify to receive public funds from the Democracy Fund, candidates must receive 200 donations. In response to the idea that the Democracy Fund had an image problem, the board discussed changing the qualification requirements.
Chairwoman Patricia Kane (pictured), however, argued that the mission of the Democracy Fund includes enabling more people to run for office, including those without access to money. She said a bigger field expands the discourse and issues of an election. She pointed to candidate Sundiata Keitazulu, who failed to qualify for the fund and dropped out of the election.
“Someone like Sundiata [Keitazulu] was the only one talking about bus routes and what it was like as a former inmate trying to get back into society and get a job,” Kane said.
Elicker used the fund for the Democratic Party mayoral primary. He lost in the primary and chose to run in the general election as an independent. Fund rules stipulated that he couldn’t continue to use public-financing. In order to keep with the spirit of the Fund, Elicker continued to abide by the rules (swearing off donations from PACs and contractors and limiting his contributions to $370). He pointed out Thursday night he pointed out that another candidate could use fund money in a primary and then violate all the principles of the fund if running again in the general election.
At the end, board members resolved to collect a list of issues and potential changes to discuss. This coming year is their chance to make changes to the fund before the next election cycle.
“ was a huge year. We had an election cycle that was unprecedented, and we’ve been making notes at all of our meetings about the Fund, so there is a pretty heavy agenda of things we’d like to see changed,” Kane said. “There’s not much glory to serving on this board, but the work we do is important.”
posted by: FacChec on January 20, 2014 4:57pm
Today, the Democracy fund remains a pilot program passed by state legislation; it was never intended to be evaluated with racial considerations as a guiding factor. The fund is financed out of taxpayer money; white, black and Hispanic voters were not consulted about whether they wanted their taxes used for this purpose. Since their approval was never acquired, why should there be wide spread approval for an invalid poll?
Elicker said he performed a telephone poll in July which assisted him in developing the resultant data, 450 sampled voters is not a statistical sampling, where there are more than 49,000 registered democratic voters.
Elicker even said: “Reached after the meeting, Elicker said any efforts to explain the poll’s racial finding would be “speculation.” I agree, Elicker did not call me and I am a registered voter who votes in all elections without fail.
This story straddles the racial divide for a sort of racial approval; however, the board determined that race is not a factor. The board said: “In response to the idea that the Democracy Fund had an image problem, the board discussed changing the qualification requirements”.
I fail to see how race or ethnicity is important to this discussion other than the fact that it was a talking point, enabling the media to focus on race baiting.
Wisely the board concluded: “In response to the idea that the Democracy Fund has an image problem, the board discussed changing the qualification requirements”. I agree.
posted by: Thomas Alfred Paine on January 20, 2014 5:25pm
I am an African American resident of New Haven does not believe in public funding of private political campaigns. Public funds should be used exclusively for the general welfare of the general public. Candidates for public office running as Democrats, Republicans or independents should run their campaigns with private contributions from their supporters and their political party organizations. Why should every taxpayer be compelled to financially support candidates and political parties for whom they would never vote? The Democracy Fund robs me of my fundamental right to financially OPPOSE candidates with whom I may disagree.
I see the Democracy Fund as being very similar to the tax the state of Connecticut used to collect from its residents to support the Congregational Church, which was the official state church until 1818. Catholics, Jews, other Protestants, Muslims and atheists were forced by this law to support a faith they did not follow because Congregationalism was the established religion in Connecticut.
The assumption that programs like the Democracy Fund will make politicians and political campaigns cleaner, fairer, more equitable and less influenced by special interests groups is foolish and extremely naive. I fail to see such programs bringing about this result. I know of no reports or studies substantiating this conclusion.
Keep taxpayer funds for taxpayers’ needs. Shut down the Democracy Fund and use our money for more important issues: education, youth programs, senior citizens, the homeless.
posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 20, 2014 6:07pm
How do you feel about private non-profit organizations like charities using tax dollars to run their organizations and fund their programs? Should they rely solely on private donations since every tax payer may not necessarily support a given charity’s mission?
Wealthy special interests controlling politics is one of the primary, if not the primary, problem with U.S. politics today. On the local level, the effect is marginal compared to the national stage, but I think it’s still and important step towards getting special interest money out of politics at every level of government.
Do you disagree with an attempts at campaign finance reform or just New Haven’s Democracy Fund, which I admit isn’t perfect?
posted by: New Haven Nuisance on January 20, 2014 6:17pm
From Thomas Alfred Paine: “I am an African American resident of New Haven does not believe in public funding of private political campaigns…The Democracy Fund robs me of my fundamental right to financially OPPOSE candidates with whom I may disagree.”
Mr. Paine, can you please explain to me what “private political campaigns” means? I have literally never heard this term ever used before. How can people running for public office participate in “private political campaigns”?
Political campaigns can certainly be funded by private donors, but the campaign itself is still one in which the candidate seeks public office.
Furthermore, in no shape, way, or form is your fundamental right to oppose a candidate for public office removed if that candidate receives public funding. You can do, and say anything legal, due to your First Amendment rights, to oppose any candidate for public office. Then, in the end, you still have the most powerful way of all to oppose that candidate available to you-by voting for someone else.
posted by: Patricia Kane on January 20, 2014 9:05pm
Once the Board has had a chance to review all the issues we identified during the mayoral campaign as needing discussion and action, we will present them to the Board of Aldermen, the Mayor and the public for their consideration.
We would like to have all New Haven residents be aware of the Democracy Fund and its role in the mayoral election, but we also want to identify what we believe to be some of the accomplishments of public campaign financing, such as the participation of so many small donors in some of the campaigns.
Public funds for candidates also increases some people’s confidence in the election process.
Very few candidates enjoy “dialing for dollars” and leveraging the funds they raise enables them to spend more time meeting voters and getting their message across.
It’s a red herring to say that taxpayer funds for such elections are at the expense of other programs. The Democracy Fund exists because politicians themselves saw it as needed.
And note that the 55% of voters who see the Democracy Fund as worthwhile are a majority of the electorate.
If we continue to improve the process, that percentage will increase.
In the meantime, the Democracy Fund is not in the City’s Charter, but exists by Ordinance.
It must either win the hearts and minds of the voters of New Haven or it can be made to disappear.
posted by: kenneth_krayeske on January 21, 2014 9:26am
OneCityManyDreams on January 20, 2014 8:48pm
Non-voters, by choice, refuse to exercise their right to have a say in how self-governing people distribute the public fisc. In Australia, it is criminal not to vote. Whereas here, OneCityManyDreams, you have turned that argument on its head by suggesting it is criminal to appropriate the people’s monies because so many people fail to register their voices. By your logic, it is then criminal to use public funds to pay for a public university, when a majority of the state will never use the school.
posted by: webblog on January 21, 2014 10:33am
@Chairwoman Patricia Kane:
There is two parts of your statement that deserves further scrutiny…”
1.“The Democracy Fund exists because politicians themselves saw it as needed.”
Precisely the argument, politicians did not offer the voters the opportunity to consider and approve the allocation and spending of their tax money to subsidize political campaigns.
The Democracy fund is still a pilot program and no other city or town in CT. has implemented it.
2. “And note that the 55% of voters who see the Democracy Fund as worthwhile are a majority of the electorate”.
Fifty five % of 450 voters is not a majority of the electorate. 13,339 democrats voted in the primary, 7,336 voters would represent 55% of that electorate.
@ kenneth_krayeske on January 21, 2014 8:26am
OneCityManyDreams in no way suggested it was “criminal to appropriate the people’s monies because so many people fail to register their voices”.
In my judgment you are attempting to turn that argument on its head by reversing the negative.”
You both need to reconsider your inverted augments.
posted by: NH Latina Activist on January 23, 2014 3:14pm
I believe in the Democracy Fund for many different reasons. I do not like to believe in “Pay to play” in politics and although Local politics differs, we demonstrated that to Ms. Linda McMahon a little while ago. The people should prevail at all times and the voices of anyone who considers themselves a candidate should be heard. That being said…. If that candidate wants to have a clean election, then they need to do the work. No they cannot sit back and make a few calls to PAC’s and businesses for checks or Entitites that are out of state etc… They need to actually do the work they claim to want to do. They need to go knock on doors, engage the voters, register the voters, and then they need to ensure they will come out to vote on election day. They also need to do this with their Future constituents. It is in the best interest of the community for candidates to have clean elections. Most of the candidates that ran last year engaged and registered more voters, right here in our community. Not by collecting checks from different PAC’s/entities that then expect a handout. That is why the Fund exists