Resolution supports local democracy fund

With an eye toward influencing state legislators, the New Haven Board of Aldermen unanimously passed a resolution last night in support of a public financing system for city elections.

The so-called New Haven Democracy Fund has now earned the backing of both the full board and Mayor John DeStefano Jr., who have argued that it will encourage local participation in politics. But the proposed fund — which will offer a $15,000 grant and matching contributions for candidates who meet certain requirements — cannot be instituted without a change in state law, although city officials said they were hopeful a bill that would allow cities to establish their own funding systems will pass in the General Assembly this year.

Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield, who authored the resolution, said creating a public financing system was a necessary step toward assuring New Haven residents that local politics are not driven by money — especially in the wake of corruption scandals in both state government and in cities like Waterbury and Bridgeport.

“I hate the perception that in order to get elected to public office in this city, you need money,” Goldfield said at last night’s board meeting. “I hope [this system] will break the perception of ‘pay-to-play’ and give voice to others in the city.”

A separate ordinance drafted by Goldfield would create a system that would provide any mayoral candidate receiving 200 contributions of $25 or more with a $15,000 grant as well as a two-to-one match from the city for the first $25 of every contribution. Participation in the public financing system would be voluntary, and any mayoral candidate receiving money from the Democracy Fund would be required to cap his spending at $200,000 in both the primary and general elections.

The board also passed an amendment last night calling for public financing in all city elections — including aldermanic races — but Goldfield’s proposed ordinance only applies to mayoral contests.

Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, who introduced a bill last year that would permit Connecticut cities and towns to create their own public financing systems, said he thought legislators were receptive to a similar proposal currently under consideration in Hartford. Looney’s bill passed the Senate last year, but it never reached the floor of the House for a full vote.

Ward 14 Alderman Joseph Jolly, who testified before the General Assembly’s Government Administration and Elections Committee yesterday, said he was optimistic about the new bill’s chances in this year’s legislative session.

“It was a crazy budget season last year, and it’s not easy to get things passed in that environment,” Jolly said. “People were really impressed that we came back today, and that gave us a lot of credibility.”

But while supporters of the Democracy Fund argue that the state should allow cities and towns to choose on their own whether they want to institute and fund their own public financing systems, some legislators have countered that cities like New Haven — which relies on state aid for slightly more than half its revenues — will ultimately be using money raised elsewhere in Connecticut.

“If the city says ‘Let us do it,’ that is really state money that is being used to subsidize local campaigns,” said State Senator Len Fasano ’81, a Republican from North Haven. “We don’t need state money to finance local campaigns.”

Goldfield said while it was difficult to project exactly how much a public financing system would cost, he estimated it might require $200,000 for every two-year election cycle.

The New Haven Board of Aldermen discuss campaign finance reform before unanimously passing a resolution concerning financing for city elections.
Brendan Kearney
The New Haven Board of Aldermen discuss campaign finance reform before unanimously passing a resolution concerning financing for city elections.

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