Conn. passes elections bill

At 2:45 Thursday morning, the Connecticut state legislature voted its way into history by making Connecticut the first state to establish a voluntary system of publicly funded elections through its legislature.

The bill, which passed the House, 82-65, after nearly six hours of debate, outlaws campaign donations from lobbyists and state contractors and replaces that money with grants from the state. It also contains a provision, heavily lobbied for by the New Haven Mayor’s Office and Yale Students for Clean Elections, that could allow New Haven to establish publicly funded elections for its mayoral campaign as early as 2007.

That provision establishes a pilot program that allows up to three municipalities to apply the State Elections Enforcement Commission for the right to run a publicly funded campaign, Karen Dubois-Walton, Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s chief of staff, said. Dubois-Walton said New Haven will “absolutely” apply for the right.

“This is a bill that New Haven has pushed for,” she said.

A small coalition of mayoral staffers, New Haven aldermen and Yale students spent three years lobbying for the bill that passed yesterday and specifically for the provision that allows New Haven to reform its elections, Dan Weeks ’06 said. Weeks is the founder of Students for Clean Elections, which spearheaded Yale’s lobbying efforts.

“As long as private interests disproportionately affect the public-policy debate, we impose barriers to what government can achieve,” Weeks said. “This is about removing the barriers to competitive elections.”

Students for Clean Elections was part of two lobbying coalitions — the Clean Up Connecticut Campaign, which focused on statewide reform, and the New Haven Democracy Fund PAC, which led the effort to reform municipal elections. On the municipal level, Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield said, Yale students were instrumental in uniting and motivating proponents of the initiative even after three years of unsuccessful attempts to get a bill passed in Hartford.

“Dan Weeks basically staffed it to some degree, making sure we were getting together regularly,” Goldfield said. “We were at a low point. We were in our third year and it was like, three strikes you’re out.”

Yale students also worked on building grass-roots support for the city and state’s reform efforts, current Students for Clean Elections director Ted Fertik ’07 said. Students for Clean Elections sponsored a number of lobbying trips to Hartford, he said, including one earlier this fall and one last winter. In addition, the group has organized “Visibility Days,” during which they set up tables on Cross Campus to encourage students to write and call their representatives.

“The time that we were calling [state Senate Majority Leader Martin] Looney’s office, by the end of the day his aide was picking up the phone saying, ‘Are you calling about campaign finance reform? We got the message,’ ” Fertik said.

Patricia Dillon, a Democratic state representative from New Haven, said Students for Clean Elections energized many of the bill’s supporters through the group’s presence in the statehouse and its adamant support for the idea of publicly funded elections.

“The advocates were very excited about the involvement of Yale students because they felt that it added a lot of punch and a lot of idealism,” she said. “You had people there doing this for 20 years, and there’s nothing better than … hearing that there are young students excited about your idea.”

The move to allow publicly funded elections on the municipal level began in Hartford as a separate issue from reforming statewide elections, Goldfield said. New Haven’s interest in reforming elections began after the 2001 mayoral election between DeStefano and Republican challenger Joel Schiavone ’58, Ward 14 Alderman Joe Jolly said. Jolly said a “huge amount” of money went into that race, estimating that DeStefano spent approximately $800,000, and that his competitor’s campaign likewise cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“There was a recognition that there was way too much time spent fund raising,” Jolly said. “Instead of being out talking to constituents and voters, candidates were fund raising all the time, and then obviously there were all the conclusions you could draw about money and influence. … With so many donations being given, who has the voice?”

But the issue of municipal reform was inserted into the larger bill only at the beginning of October’s special legislative session, Goldfield said, on the advice of state Rep. Chris Caruso, a Bridgeport Democrat. Until then, the New Haven coalition had been trying to pass municipal reform through a separate bill.

Fertik said Students for Clean Elections is particularly excited about the impending change on the municipal level. New Haven has already drafted a plan for reforming its campaigns, and the Board of Aldermen, he said, will likely discuss and vote on it soon. The State Elections Enforcement Commission must still approve the plan, but Fertik said he hopes many students will become engaged with the debate as it is now much closer to home than the debate in Hartford was.

“It’s always been difficult to motivate a lot of students about the statewide bill because our role is minor,” he said. “The municipal provision … gives us a real way to have a grass-roots component. It’s going to be an opportunity to do some organizing on campus.”

Goldfield said the New Haven coalition will meet soon to discuss its strategy for securing state approval of its plan to enact publicly funded elections.

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