In mayoral race, public money only helps incumbent

New Haven city officials created the New Haven Democracy Fund in 2007 to provide public funding to mayoral candidates in the hopes of fostering more competitive races. But this year, only one of the four mayoral candidates has qualified for the funding: the 15-year incumbent, John DeStefano Jr.

According to his most recent campaign finance report, DeStefano raised $175,557.50 for his campaign as of Oct. 20, $11,330 of which came from the Democracy Fund. On the other hand, two of his challengers, independents Ralph Ferrucci and Henri Sumner, both chose not to participate in the program because they did not think they needed the public funding to run their campaigns, they said. The third challenger, independent Angela Watley, said she would participate but, as of Nov. 2, had not raised sufficient campaign contributions to be eligible for the public funding.

In order to qualify for the funding, candidates must obtain at least 200 contributions of at least $10 from New Haven voters, cannot receive contributions of more than $340 from any party, and cannot receive contributions from businesses or political committees. For every individual donation between $25 and $340 that a campaign receives, the Fund provides the campaign with $50. For every donation from an individual between $10 and $25, the Fund contributes twice as much as the individual’s donation.

The Democracy Fund was first introduced in the 2007 election, in which Democratic challenger James Newton raised enough funds to qualify for Democracy Fund funding but could not actually run for mayor because he had not obtained enough signatures. In 2007, Republican challenger H. Richter Elser ’81 also attempted to qualify for the funding, but failed, Democracy Fund Administrator Robert Wechsler said. So in that year as well, DeStefano was the only candidate to receive funds from the program, to the tune of $11,850. This time around, in order to make it easier for candidates to qualify for the funding, the Board of Aldermen reduced the required minimum donation from $25 to $10. But the program is still not being used by the type of candidates it is targeting, said Caleb Kleppner, the Democracy Fund’s chair.

“This program is a wonderful and unique opportunity for candidates who don’t have the ability to raise a lot of money to get enough money from the public to get their message to the public,” Kleppner said.

He added that it’s a shame DeStefano’s challengers, who are independents, are not using the program. According to campaign finance reports, Ferrucci is campaigning on his personal funds; Sumner said he is doing his own financing — he does not intend to receive more than $1,000. Watley tried to raise enough money to qualify for Democracy Fund funding but as of Nov. 2 had not raised enough to qualify, Kleppner said.

“[They] are not raising or spending very much money at all and I don’t think the public is hearing from them,” he said.

A seven-member volunteer board oversees the Democracy Fund. The mayor nominates the members and the Board of Aldermen must approve them.

Kleppner added that he hopes more candidates will participate in coming years. If this does not occur the program could become irrelevant, said Board of Aldermen President Carl Goldfield, who has been involved with the fund since its inception.

Ferrucci, who tried to qualify for Democracy Fund funding in the 2007 election, said the only funding he needs this year is the approximately $1,000 he has spent on campaign flyers.

“I don’t want to spend the time asking people for money when I should be campaigning,” he said. He also said that his main reason for not participating is that he thinks it is hard to ask voters for money this year given the recession.

Sumner said he did not participate because he wants to meet with people and thinks that a donation does not necessarily mean a vote.

Watley was unavailable for comment Monday.

DeStefano has supported the program since it was conceived in 2003. DeStefano’s campaign manager Keya Jayaram said the purpose of the Democracy Fund is to make all candidates equal by reducing candidates’ dependence on large donors and limiting spending on campaigns. Candidates who receive financing from the fund cannot spend more than $338,000.

“The mayor championed the program and hoped that people would participate,” Jayaram said.

This year the mayor’s re-election campaign raised more than it did in 2007, Jayaram said. As of Sept. 30 this year, the campaign had raised $147,242.50; by the same date two years ago, DeStefano had raised just $85,000, according to the New Haven Independent.

The campaign has used all but $7,944.62 of the money raised this year as part of the mayor’s “visibility campaign,” Jayaram said. She said the elements of the campaign included mailings to registered voters, signs around the city, phone banking and door-to-door canvassing. Some of the funds raised have also gone toward the salaries of campaign staff.

Candidates who qualify for the Democracy Fund can also apply to receive a $17,000 public financing grant, so long as at least there are at least two mayoral candidates who have each raised or spent no less than $5,000.

If re-elected today, DeStefano will become New Haven’s longest-serving mayor.

Comments

  • dsimon

    I don’t think the point of public campaign financing is to “level the playing field” or necessarily “fostering more competitive races.”

    One purpose is to provide people who demonstrate a threshold level of support with sufficient funds to run their campaigns. (A threshold requirement is important so that the public doesn’t see its funds going to “fringe” candidates, which would diminish public support of the system.) And another is to break any perceived link between donations and influence.

    Many public financing systems allow one candidate to outraise another, but they still allow others to get their messages out. If public financing leads to greater competition, great. But it’s not the sole purpose of these systems.

  • Check yourself

    Logical flaw in this article: It’s absurd to even talk about this election as a “race” in the first place.