Though the next mayoral election is nearly two years away, members of New Haven’s Board of Aldermen spent Wednesday night laying the foundations for making the race publicly funded.
Although the aldermen working on the proposal, a group known as the Democracy Fund, overcame one hurdle in getting the state to approve publicly funded municipal elections in December, they still must secure approval both from the entire board and from the state for a plan specific to New Haven. Furthermore, some aldermen present at Wednesday’s meeting questioned how they could sell the idea of spending tax money on elections to New Haven voters, particularly in a tight budget year.
Board President Carl Goldfield said he estimates that the city would need to budget $100,000 per year for publicly funded elections, but he said the new system would allow for fairer competition, as less wealthy candidates would be able to compete, and would also eliminate the perception of corruption associated with voter concerns that politicians may owe favors to those who donate to their campaigns.
Ward 14 Alderman Joe Jolly said the impetus for the proposal was the city’s experience in recent mayoral elections.
“We were depressed that competition didn’t seem real. No one took running very seriously, except in that one competitive race in 2001,” Jolly said, referring to the race between current Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and state Sen. Martin Looney, the Democratic majority leader.
Under the plan proposed in New Haven, candidates would prove their viability by raising 200 contributions of more than $25 from New Haven residents. They would then be eligible for a block grant of approximately $10,000 to begin campaigning. Donations greater than $25 would thereafter each be matched with $50 from the city. Jolly said the system would be voluntary, and candidates opting into it would agree to a spending cap of $200,000, as well as a few other restrictions, such as not accepting money from political action committees.
Jolly said it remains unclear how much money the city will end up matching. Because the proposal has been in development for a number of years, costs have changed since the first projections were made. But Jolly said the most money spent on a mayoral election was $1.2 million in the 2001 race between DeStefano, Looney, and Republican nominee Joel Schiavone ’58. In more recent elections, candidates have each spent around $150,000, he said.
Because the proposed system matches all donations between $25 and $300 with the same $50, the aldermen said the system favors “little guy” candidates who raise a large number of small donations over incumbents who may be able to raise bigger sums from a few prominent donors.
Ward 9 Alderwoman GRD ’06 said this is one of the system’s advantages.
“It’s one of the best features,” Addonizio said. “We really put the emphasis on viable candidates who could go out and generate the votes and the little contributions but couldn’t get the big contributions.”
The group still needs to work out the details of administering and monitoring the program, Jolly said. He said the group working on the proposal is currently planning to contract the monitoring work out to a part-time accountant.
“This will be a disaster if we don’t have a good administrative system,” Jolly said.
Several of the aldermen present at the meeting spoke about the difficulties they expected to face in marketing the plan, which would be funded by taxpayer money, to their constituents. Some of the aldermen said they expect some voters to question why money should be allocated to election costs, as opposed to the school system or the police department.
“It’s not in addition to everything you need to do,” Ward 25 Alderwoman Ina Silverman said. “It’s instead.”
Ward 2 Alderwoman Joyce Chen ’01 said the challenge will be to convince the public that cleaning up elections is a public good.
“People will be worried that their tax money will be used for what they think is a dirty game,” she said.
Jolly said that while he acknowledges the potential difficulty, he said the cost, divided among taxpayers, would be no more than a cup of coffee per person. Additionally, he said, although people may not realize it, tax money already goes towards elections, as the city must pay for maintaining voting machines, as well as paying the salary of the Registrar of Voters.
Goldfield said the city must submit some preliminary forms for the proposal to the State Election Enforcement Commission by April 1, and that the final deadline is in September. Although there is no guarantee that the state will approve New Haven’s application, he said, he is optimistic about securing approval because New Haven was the only city to spend three years lobbying in Hartford for permission to change the election law.