As Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, the first non-DeStefano participant, signed on to New Haven’s ‘Democracy Fund’ a couple days ago, I had a thought that many who follow politics in this part of the country are all too familiar with: “Only in New England!” Only in New England could a candidate for mayor of a city constantly strapped for cash kick his campaign into high gear by spending his future constituents’ money on himself!
However, after having read the terrific series of investigative articles in the News earlier this month by Diana Li ’15, comparing New Haven’s still very limited public financing laws to a more advanced system in Arizona, my initial contrarian reaction turned to deep concern. What if, as suddenly seems possible, public financing moves from being the exception to being the rule in New Haven?
It seems high time that we asked, particularly amid an election season which promises to make use of it more than ever, whether this policy really makes sense for New Haven. By using the fund, participating candidates for mayor (and possibly, in the future, alderman) receive a matching grant from the city after they reach a certain fundraising threshold. The program continues to match donations, meaning that a candidate effective at fundraising can collect public funds into the hundred thousands. The program is justified by the claim that a program which helps level the amount of campaign cash between candidates will lead to a stronger, more diverse, more open political culture.
The public financing idea rests on a very dubious assumption: that campaign donations, when left to their own devices, do more harm for the democratic process than good. It assumes that for one candidate to accumulate more cash than another through effective fundraising is at best illegitimate, at worst sinister.
Neither I nor, I suspect, anyone else would try to make the case that big donations always favor the best candidate. It is far more presumptuous, though, to conclude that such ‘unfairness’ justifies using taxpayer funds to manipulate fundraising.
Not only does public funding artificially try to level the playing field between candidates of differing levels of seriousness or strength. It also severely inhibits the ability of the democratic process, imperfect as it may be, to help advance better candidates. In an Orwellian inversion of the democratic ideal, the “Democracy Fund” can force a New Haven taxpayer to support a political candidate in whom he has no interest, or whom he perhaps vehemently opposes. Failing to let candidates rise and fall on the strength of their own candidacies does little to bolster democracy. On the contrary, it delivers it a stinging blow.
In New Haven, this policy, already questionable in theory, becomes a farce. Implicit in the name “Democracy” fund is the hope that in New Haven, lowering political barriers to entry will promote a vibrant exchange of contrasting political ideas. Unfortunately, in the years since the Fund has existed, one of only three candidates to use it has been incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, a political dinosaur seeking to keep a marathon career afloat. It’s really unclear whether funding more candidates, most of whom have very similar policy platforms, will add any diversity to the city’s politics. More likely, it will continue to give voters a lot of different personalities to choose from but no real choice.
And let us not forget that ours is a city on fiscal life support. As we bounce from year to year between running $40 million deficits, greedily pouring one-time stimulus grants into closing budget gaps, and begging for more money from Hartford, we sustain a program which in all likelihood will only give us more politicians to promote the same failed policies.
Maybe it’s time to reevaluate our priorities. Is the $200,000 used to replenish the Democracy Fund for the next fiscal year really being put to its best possible use? I, for one, would have used it instead to hire five new first-year public school teachers for next academic year.
While the New Haven program remains in embryo, Li’s report on the Fund’s colossal sister program in Arizona should give us great caution and concern. As the Fund’s increasing relevance in the coming election indicates, it is far from out of the question for the Fund to assume a dominating role in New Haven politics. As the power to determine the success or failure of political campaigns devolves more and more to government, New Haven will become a true pioneer, a proprietor of one of the nation’s most effective anti-democracy funds.
John Masko is a junior in Saybrook College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .