Public financing debate heats up

With the entry of two more candidates into New Haven’s mayoral race over the past week, the debate over the role of public financing has intensified.

Three of the six declared candidates for the city’s highest office are participating in the Democracy Fund, New Haven’s public campaign finance program for mayoral candidates. On Monday, Ken Krayeske, the Fund’s administrator, approved a third check of $8,600 for Ward 10 Alderman and mayoral candidate Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, bringing his total to $37,440 this year — the most money the Democracy Fund has given to a candidate since its inception in 2006.

Along with Elicker, State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and plumber Sundiata Keitazulu have committed to using the system. Meanwhile, former city economic development director Henry Fernandez LAW ’94, president and CEO of Connecticut Technology Council Matthew Nemerson and State Sen. Toni Harp — who announced her intention to enter the race on Monday — have chosen to opt out of the Fund.

Harp explained her decision to opt out by saying that she entered the race “too late” to use the Fund effectively, but she added that if she were to win the race, she might choose to use the Fund at a later date. Harp said that she thinks regardless of whether candidates opt into the Democracy Fund, there will be “vigorous public discussion about [the Fund’s] future.”

“The Democracy Fund anticipates in the future that all candidates will participate, because there is a public desire and demand, especially in the city of New Haven, for people to participate in public campaign financing,” Krayeske said. He added that he will not comment on specific candidates’ decisions to opt out of the system.

Nemerson told the News prior to Harp’s announcment that he would potentially agree to use the Democracy Fund if Fernandez also decided to use the system. But as Fernandez is not doing so, Nemerson has instead hired an impartial ombudsman to disclose his donations online within 48 hours of the campaign receiving them.

“In this campaign, I’m going to try to raise as much money as I can to get my message out, and so I’m going to show my credibility by having full disclosure so people will know who has given me money,” Nemerson said. “People will know almost as soon as I get the donations and put them in the bank, and they can make their judgments. At this point, transparency is the most important thing, and we know there is less and less transparency at the federal level, which is what’s really driving a lot of the frustration.”

Holder-Winfield, however, argued that transparency is not the primary problem in campaign finance and that the type of disclosure Nemerson advocates still fails to create an even playing field, which he sees as one of the main benefits of the Democracy Fund.

“Public financing is about voices that can’t normally get into the system being able to get into the system. I could’ve gone outside the system and it would’ve been easier for me to raise money, but I put myself inside so a candidate like [Keitazulu] would have a chance to participate,” Holder-Winfield said. “Public financing isn’t about whether Nemerson is a good or bad guy: Public financing is about whether our politics is controlled by money. If I show that I’m controlled by money [by disclosure], how does that make the system clean?”

While Nemerson said that his decision to opt out of the Democracy Fund partially depended upon Fernandez’s similar choice, Elicker and Holder-Winfield both said that they would have participated in the Fund even if they had known when they declared that other candidates would not participate.

Hillhouse High School Principal Kermit Carolina, who formed an exploratory committee but has not yet declared his candidacy, said he will use the Democracy Fund if he decides to join the race.

The Democratic Primary will be held on Sept. 10.

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