Financing program may grow

If attempting to level one playing field wasn’t enough to change the face of campaigning in New Haven, why not try to level 31 of them?

For the first time publicly, local leaders are suggesting that the newly created — but so far under-utilized — New Haven Democracy Fund be extended to cover aldermanic races. New Haven’s program for publicly financed elections is the first in Connecticut, offering grants and matching funds to qualified mayoral candidates.

In its first year, the fund has not yet lived up to one of its key purposes: to entice more candidates to run in elections. Last month, mayoral challenger James Newton dropped out of the race after failing to receive the number of signatures needed to run. The opportunity for public funding did inspire longshot candidate Republican H. Richter Elser ’81 to join the race, but Mayor John DeStefano Jr. — who ran uncontested in the Democratic primary last week — recently had to return the $15,000 grant he received from the fund because he had been unchallenged by other Democrats.

In part due to the initiative’s relatively intangible impact on the mayoral race so far, the possibility of extending its reach to the city’s 30 aldermanic races is being seriously considered by Democracy Fund leaders — if, of course, the nuts and bolts are worked out.

“I’d be interested in seeing if the citizens of New Haven are happy with the Democracy Fund and … if there would be any movement to broaden it to the aldermanic races,” said Maria Lamberto, the fund’s chairwoman. “My hope would be that the Democracy Fund is deemed to be a success and the state allows us to broaden it to other municipal elections.”

Lamberto emphasized that she was speaking for herself as a private citizen and not the fund’s board in making the proposal. But her suggestion seems to have some momentum elsewhere in the political ranks of the Elm City.

“It would be interesting because it would be enough [public] money — say you made it $1,000 — that a challenger would really [be able to] mount something,” Ward 10 Alderman Ed Mattison said, noting that as it stands, “it’s tough to go up against somebody who has backing and who has access to some money.”

Although the impact of such a move might not heavily impact Ward 1 — where financing is less important than time spent getting to know students who are registered Connecticut voters — it could change the campaigning dynamic in communities like Dixwell, which includes Swing Space and Silliman, Morse, Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight colleges.

Longtime Ward 22 candidate Cordelia Thorpe said it is lack of money that has prevented her from running a formidable campaign, as Ward 22 residents are generally too poor to donate to a campaign.

“It would encourage more people to run for office, both in the dominant Democratic Party as well as in the other parties, and it would encourage a more robust debate about the issues affecting the city,” said Green Party member Caleb Kleppner, who is on the Democracy Fund board. “It certainly could be done in a way that would not be too expensive but would put enough money in the hands of the candidates that they would be able to make their case.”

But New Haven and Connecticut might not have enough money to support public funding for 30 races — and potentially many more candidates.

Yale Law School professor Dennis Curtis, who is vice chairman of the Democracy Fund, pointed to Los Angeles as a model of public funding success for city councils. But in that city — where he was the first president of its City Ethics Commission in the early 1990s — there are only 15 council representatives.

“It’s a good idea to expand it to aldermanic races,” he said. “The problem is it’s costly. You gotta prove that it works, and I think that we gotta prove that this works before we can ask for expansion.”

As with most legislation in New Haven, the Connecticut General Assembly must approve changes to the Democracy Fund.

Ralph Ferrucci, who is challenging DeStefano on the Green Party ticket in November, said it “might actually” work if it were expanded to aldermanic campaigns, particularly because local Board of Aldermen contenders need not spend much more than $1,000, which, he said, is “a lot of money” on the micro-local level.

“You really only need a couple thousand dollars,” he said.

But for the time being, Ferrucci — like Elser — is focused on the race at hand. Ferrucci is currently trying to meet the Democracy Fund’s requirement that candidates raise 200 individual contributions of $300 or less before they qualify for public funds.

The mayor — who is expected to win reelection in a landslide this fall — might also be interested in pursuing the idea further.

“It was good to start on the mayor level and see where it goes, I guess,” said Adriana Arreola, DeStefano’s campaign manager. “Anything to take special interests out of campaigns, I’m sure he’d be in favor of.”

Presented with the idea, Ward 24 Alderwoman Elizabeth McCormack, who is head of the Aldermanic Affairs Committee, was hesitant but open-minded.

“This is the first time I’m hearing about it, [but] where is the money going to come from?” she said. “I can’t jump up or down and say, ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay,’ but if it did level the playing field, and the funding source is not an issue, yeah. Why not?”

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