Students push for campaign reform in capitol

The Yale College Democrats and Yale Students for Clean Elections trekked to the state capital Friday to lobby lawmakers for campaign finance reform, with possible implications for politics in New Haven and the state in general.

Twenty Yale students engaged legislators in debate about Senate Bill 877, which would create a voluntary system of public campaign financing in New Haven, providing public funds to candidates and matching contributions made by citizens. Members of the College Democrats and YSCE participated in a press conference with state Sen. Martin Looney and the General Administration and Elections Committee chairman Chris Caruso and met with the GAE Committee, which will be voting on the bill.

“Connecticut has been screaming for this reform for a long time,” Ward 14 Alderman Joe Jolly said. “It would be most appropriate to enact this at the mayoral or alderman level to get people comfortable with the idea that it won’t end politics as they know it.”

The bill was written by grassroots community organizations including the Citizens for the New Haven Democracy Fund, in conjunction with Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and members of the Board of Aldermen, including Jolly. College Democrats President Alissa Stollwerk ’06 said SB 877 addresses the disproportionate role played by some Connecticut residents in financing past elections. In the 2004 state elections, Stollwerk said, 0.1 percent of Connecticut residents donated all the money. Under the new bill, candidates who receive a baseline level of support would receive matching funds from the city.

“If such a small percent of the population donates the money, the politicians are going to listen to these people,” Stollwerk said. “The idea of the bill is to put public interest back into politics … This increases opportunities for women, minorities and young people, and also ensures that special interests aren’t dominating.”

Stollwerk said the bill is vital to public financing of campaigns because Connecticut state election laws prohibit any municipality from enforcing public financing without state authorization.

The press conference was an extremely informative experience for the Yale students participating, College Democrats Campaigns Coordinator Brendan Gants ’08 said.

“Martin Looney and Chairman Caruso both gave very passionate defenses of the legislation we’re pushing for,” Gants said. “It was good to see those guys stand up there and support our issue very strongly in the press.”

Following the press conference, students attended hearings of the GAE Committee to testify on behalf of SB 877. Five students, Erica Franklin ’05, David Litt ’07, Jen James ’08, Nick Hutchings ’08 and Ted Fertik ’07 spoke on issues including the ideology of public finance and the responsibility of the government to its citizens, Gants said.

In the afternoon, students met individually with 20 state legislators to try to persuade lawmakers to support the bill. YSCE Political Co-director Olga Berlinsky ’08 said she encountered a range of reactions in her meetings.

Though the Yale College Republicans do not have an official stance on the bill, College Republicans Social Vice President Alexander Yergin ’07 said, as a group member, he supports any process that would help clean up the electoral process.

“If public funding of campaigns will help more qualified candidates to run even though they don’t have the financial resources, then I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “A bill that will make people determine policies based more on what is right for their constituents than what is right for interest groups who contribute money is worthwhile.”

Although debate over SB 877 will continue, the students who traveled to the state capital said the positive reaction they received from lawmakers is an encouraging sign for the bill’s ultimate success.

“We’re not expecting it to pass tomorrow just because we took a bus up to Hartford,” Gants said. “On the other hand, our lobbying can have a real influence by drawing media attention to the issue, putting a human face on it, and persuading legislators that the bill we are proposing is worthy of passage.”

State Rep. Walter Pawelkiewicz talks with Jen James ’08 at a Democratic press conference in Hartford. The Yale College Democrats and YSCE recently traveled to Hartford to gain support for state financing for campaigns.
Courtesy DanielWeeks
State Rep. Walter Pawelkiewicz talks with Jen James ’08 at a Democratic press conference in Hartford. The Yale College Democrats and YSCE recently traveled to Hartford to gain support for state financing for campaigns.

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