Somebody smart once said, “All politics is local.”
With increasing attention being paid to our national primaries, and to Washington politics in general, it’s easy to lose sight of this fact. But right now, in the city of New Haven, there’s a unique effort underway to change politics from the ground up. If successful, this grassroots initiative for democratically-financed elections would lay the foundation for reform of our state and federal elections.
Last December, I contributed a piece about issues of campaign finance and clean elections at large. I tried to make clear that the breadth of money’s influence in politics goes beyond who took whose money and why; it extends all the way to issues of participation and enfranchisement in our country. Who has the money to speak in the political process? Whom do politicians represent while in office? What is the role of ordinary citizens in our democratic politics?
While it is easy to think of these questions as a problem out there somewhere — in Washington, in Hartford — the reality is that even in a city of 100,000, money talks. In 2001, candidates for mayor of New Haven raised over $1.2 million, with incumbent Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. outspending his primary and general election opponents by a margin of two to one. Much of that money, over 70 percent in fact, came from outside New Haven, and much of it in amounts that no ordinary resident of our city can afford to give. Is there an established quid pro quo? Not in New Haven, at least, but we have to think that anyone who raises that much money is going to remember his friends. The fact is, money talks in a political process where candidates must fight first for dollars if they wish to fight for votes.
But there’s something we can all do about it. A project is in motion to create a New Haven Democracy Fund. It is a system of partial public financing for New Haven mayoral elections, in which each candidate who demonstrates a significant threshold of public support would receive limited public funds with which to finance his or her campaign. Qualified candidates who choose to opt in would receive a $15,000 grant, along with 2-to-1 matching funds for the first $25 of all contributions, so that a $25 contribution is worth $75 to the candidate. It would require the candidates to limit contributions to a maximum of $300 per person, and it would set a $200,000 spending limit for each candidate. It is 100 percent optional and therefore completely constitutional. And the cost to New Haven residents is just $100,000 per year — approximately equal to the amount our city pays on its debt every single day.
If passed, the New Haven Democracy Fund would be the first public financing system in Connecticut, placing New Haven at the head of a growing national trend for public ownership of our elections. Cities from New York to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Cincinnati have already instituted similar such reforms — proof that real reform must come form the bottom up. Here in Connecticut, the cities of Middletown and New Briton are looking to follow New Haven’s lead, while the State Assembly itself is considering full public financing for state offices. It’s time we get the ball rolling here at home.
Support is strong in the New Haven Board of Alderman for the Fund. But there are a few steps that need to be taken before the Democracy Fund can be realized. Under Connecticut Law, the State Legislature has to authorize cities to pass certain types of laws, including campaign regulations. So New Haven will pass a resolution saying that if Hartford gives them permission, they will pass the law. But many people in the State Government are uneasy about public financing because it might weaken the power of incumbency. If New Haven can show real popular support for this proposal, it will put pressure on Hartford to authorize the bill. That’s where Yale students come in.
The Board of Alderman is set to consider the Democracy Fund now, and Mayor DeStefano has pledged to sign it if it is brought before him. This Thursday, the Legislation Committee of the Board of Aldermen will consider a resolution urging the State Assembly to authorize New Haven and other Connecticut cities to implement such reform, a necessary step in the process of municipal reform. As students and concerned citizens, we have a stake in the health of our democracy, both today and into the future. Standing up in support of clean elections, beginning here at home, can help to ensure the promise of political equality for all. Eventually, if enough cities across America take the initiative toward reform, state governments will catch on. Ultimately, we can help reduce the influence of money on all political candidates in this country. But it all starts at home.
Campaign finance reform is a non-partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans alike depend on campaign contributions, but with meaningful reform, we can help shift their attention from contributors to constituents. The vast sums of private money in politics breed a culture of cynicism, apathy and distrust toward our elected officials. Right now we have a chance to change that, beginning here in New Haven. Stand up in support of clean elections, this Thursday, 7 p.m. at City Hall.