Public financing for aldermanic races considered

Alderman Darnell Goldson wants public financing extended to aldermanic races.
Alderman Darnell Goldson wants public financing extended to aldermanic races. Photo by Alon Harish.

The Democracy Fund, the city’s public financing program for mayoral elections, may be expanding to cover aldermanic races starting in 2013.

At a joint meeting of the Aldermanic Affairs and Legislation committees Monday night, Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson proposed a measure that could award up to $1,000 to eligible aldermanic candidates. While several committee members showed enthusiasm for the idea of expanding public financing, reservations about the necessity and feasibility of expanding the fund prompted aldermen to delay action on the proposal. The 11 aldermen present unanimously agreed to form a working group to develop a detailed plan for the program’s expansion before it is approved.

Extending public financing to aldermanic races would increase public confidence in the political process, Goldson said in his testimony to the joint committee.

“Not a lot of candidates have the wherewithal to compete with the fundraising of labor unions or the administration,” Goldson said. “A good candidate doesn’t need much money, just a baseline to get started.”

Goldson, a vocal critic of Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s administration, added that he was outspent 2-to-1 in his 2009 race against Carlton Staggers, a pro-City Hall candidate.

In that race, DeStefano shifted surplus money from his Democracy Fund allocation into a political action committee that supported, among other candidates, Staggers. City spokesman Adam Joseph said the mayor’s actions were in accordance with state elections law.

While he ran with public money in 2007 and 2009, DeStefano will not participate in the Democracy Fund as he seeks a record 10th term as mayor this November.

In order to be eligible for public financing under Goldson’s draft proposal, candidates would have to collect a certain number of small contributions — perhaps 25 contributions of as little as $5. If they met the threshold, candidates would be paid a flat sum of $500 or $1,000 from the Democracy Fund to help run their campaigns. Candidates receiving public financing would be forbidden to raise money from private sources.

$350,000 out of the original $400,000 remain in the Democracy Fund’s account, said board chairman Caleb Kleppner, leaving the city plenty of money to expand the program to aldermanic campaigns, which are much cheaper to run than mayoral campaigns.

“Even a modest level of financing could assist more candidates from the community to run, resulting in more points of view being discussed and a process where more people get involved in city government,” Kleppner said.

After the meeting Monday night, Goldson said the mayor’s financial support of his opponent prompted him to work on his proposal to expand public financing to aldermanic candidates. But he would not stand to benefit from the expansion: Goldson said he will not seek re-election in 2013, the first election for which the expanded public financing system would be in place if approved.

The Board of Aldermen would be also be more politically independent if aldermanic candidates could participate in the public financing, Jones added.

But Ward 29 Alderman and board President Carl Goldfield expressed skepticism that the fund could handle the extra work of monitoring 30 aldermanic races. Aldermanic candidates, who Goldfield said engage mainly in door-to-door “retail politics,” may not even need city funds.

But Matt Smith ’98, who in November won election to Ward 9 alderman in one of the city’s only contested elections, said public financing would have been very helpful. Goldson added that he strongly considered not running in 2009 because of the financial burden a campaign would impose.

Public financing for aldermanic candidates would also encourage more third-party candidates to run, said Green Party member and former Ward 10 Alderman Allan Brison.

Aldermen ultimately decided to table discussion on Goldson’s proposal until a more detailed plan could be worked out. To that end, the joint committee unanimously approved a measure authorizing Legislation chair Jorge Perez and Aldermanic Affairs chair Thomas Lehtonen to form a working group to put that plan together.

In 2009, only seven of the city’s 30 aldermanic elections had contested primaries.

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