With staff rebound, Democracy Fund could expand

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Photo by Allie Krause.

After eight months in which staff attrition hindered the board administering the New Haven Democracy Fund, the city’s public-financing system is back on its feet this fall — with a quorum of board members working on a proposal that could expand the fund to aldermanic races.

Board members said they are crunching numbers to figure out a feasible way to infuse public money into hyper-local races. At its next meeting, scheduled for either Sept. 23 or Sept. 30, these details will begin to take shape, and the board hopes to have a proposal to submit to the Board of Alders by the end of the year.

The seven-person board now has four of its spots filled, said the board’s chair, Patricia Kane, an attorney in New Haven and Stamford. The installation this August of Jared Milfred ’16, who leads Yale’s Democracy United, a group at Yale promoting good-government issues, gave the board back its quorum.

Since its inception in 2007, the fund has financed more than half a dozen mayoral campaigns, leading up to its busiest year in the fall of 2013, when three candidates opted to use public money during the Democratic primary. This meant limiting individual donations to $370 in return for a $19,000 grant and matching funds of up to $125,000.

At the start of the year, however, the fund began losing board members, either because these individuals were at the end of their terms or because work and family demands made fulfilling the duties of the role impossible. The last meeting at which the board had a quorum — allowing it to conduct official business — was in January, recalled Ken Krayeske, whose contract as the fund’s administrator ended in June. Since the winter, meetings have been converted into purely educational sessions or cancelled altogether.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” Kane said.

Since the board resumed work, Milfred, a junior in Pierson College from Portland, Oregon, has been charged with researching the feasibility of aldermanic campaign financing.

Krayeske, a full-time attorney, said he began this project in March 2013, but that his numbers assumed the “worst-case scenario”: competitive primary and general election race in all 30 of the city’s wards. The figures he produced — $4,000 per race — seemed exorbitant to the Board of Alders and the plan was never formally submitted, he said.

Milfred said he is basing his work on the assumption that each election cycle sees only a handful of competitive races. He said board members are leaning toward proposing a combination of grant money and matching funds, but are not sure of the precise levels. Simply dividing the numbers used in the mayoral race by 30 may not work, he said.

He is also examining ways to prevent the fund from doling out money to every aldermanic hopeful.

“The problem is also finding more refined techniques of establishing that a candidate is credible,” he said. The fund’s board will likely end up offering the Board of Alders several options from which they can choose, he added.

Ultimately, Kane said, financing aldermanic races is possible under the fund’s current budget. She said the fund currently has about $300,000 on hand.

Alders interviewed expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of running their campaigns on public money. Dixwell Alder Jeanette Morrison, who also represents four of Yale’s residential colleges, said she would appreciate the option of public financing, but hesitated to commit: She said she has always received money from her union, assistance she would be hesitant to give up.

Westville Alder Adam Marchand GRD ’99 said the principle is good, but that there may be little need. He said $1,000 is sufficient to run a campaign.

Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, a two-term alder and outspoken proponent of public financing in his race against Mayor Toni Harp last fall, echoed Marchand’s ambivalence.

“To run an effective aldermanic campaign, you need almost no money,” he said. “Each [alder] represents about 4,500 people, and so you can theoretically have no money and knock on everyone’s door and still get a ton of votes.”

Still, Elicker and Krayeske said these races are not always free of financial influence. In 2011, when organized labor successfully supported more than a dozen candidates, sizeable donations helped their candidates edge out opponents backed by City Hall, they said.

Krayeske said even a minor move towards public financing would create equity across all levels of municipal politics, encouraging alders and mayoral candidates alike to “take money out of the equation.”

Above all, Kane said, she is working to rebuild the board’s staff. Milfred said they have already received several applications for the role of administrator.

The appointment of Republican William Wynn to the Fund, which is nonpartisan, was approved by the aldermanic affairs committee in August. Wynn goes next to the full Board of Alders for confirmation.

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