The Democracy Fund has a new lease on life.
With power — or, in this case, the requisite staff to conduct business — comes responsibility, which means New Haven’s public campaign finance system is preparing to analyze potential tweaks, clarifications and even overhauls of the opportunities local politicians have to capitalize on public funds. The aim is to ensure the fund remains relevant after a banner election season last year when four mayoral candidates opted into the system.
But the candidate ultimately crowned in last year’s race, Toni Harp, did not take advantage of the fund, instead delivering several pointed criticisms of its operations. Chief among her objections was that a publicly financed candidate could lose the primary in September and then run again in the general election, freed of the fund’s constraints while maintaining the guise of public financing.
Participation in the fund requires candidates to limit individual donations to $370 in exchange for a $19,000 grant and matching funds of up to $125,000.
At its monthly meetings this fall — which will resume in September after a multiple-month hiatus — the board will begin tackling some of the mayor’s criticisms, considering in particular the “loophole” Harp identified, said chair Patricia Kane and board member Jared Milfred ’16.
Kane, an attorney in New Haven and Stamford, said she recently met with Harp’s chief of staff, Tomas Reyes, to discuss the role of the fund and the mayor’s expressed concerns.
She said the meeting was extremely positive — “I was booked for 10 minutes and ended up staying an hour” — but that she still does not expect Harp to use public money should she run for re-election.
When asked about the mayor’s plans, Reyes told the News he could not say whether the mayor would swear off large private donations in favor of public financing next fall. He said Harp still has concerns about the way the fund operates, though her criticisms are perhaps not “as strident as they were during the campaign.”
Kane said one of the consequences of the fund’s heightened visibility last fall was that it was used as a political wedge among candidates. Indeed, Harp’s detractors cited her abstention from the fund in painting her as beholden to special interests, while Harp fired back by critiquing the fund itself.
Reyes said the mayor’s criticisms are twofold: not only that unsuccessful primary candidates can renege on the constraints of public financing in the general election, but also that spending public money on electoral campaigns may divert it from more critical needs.
For the moment, Reyes said, Harp is supporting the fund simply by helping to appoint more members so it can maintain a quorum. The fund still lacks an administrator after Ken Krayeske’s contract ended in June.
Milfred, whose confirmation in August restored a quorum to the board, said several applications for the role of administrator will be considered by the staff this fall.
Reyes said he is confident the board will tackle the mayor’s objections.
“The hope is that they’ll be able to reach consensus about the most effective way to tweak the rules to avoid some of these problems,” he said.
Others said changes to the fund’s operations do not need to be made — at least in the way Harp sees fit. Krayeske, who works as an attorney in Hartford, said last fall’s race proved the mayor’s concerns to be unfounded. When Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 ran in the general election as a petitioning independent candidate after losing the Democratic primary, he opted to abide by the rules of the fund even though he was no longer receiving grants or matching funds.
In fact, Krayeske said, he would like to see Democracy Fund candidates be able to “double dip” — receive public money in the primary and then again in the general election.
Krayeske said the board should not design the rules of the fund around the wishes of a potential incumbent who did not participate the first time around.
“The mayor wants to neuter the Democracy Fund,” he said.
To combat this, Krayeske said, the fund should develop means of holding nonparticipating candidates accountable. Currently the board only audits the donations received by candidates using public money, which means significant private contributions received by other candidates are never scrutinized, he said.
But to give the fund additional authority, the Board of Alders would have to pass a law, and the mayor would have to sign it, Milfred said.
Beyond the mayor’s queries, the fund’s governing board may take up further technical matters, Milfred said, including double-reporting requirements for participating candidates, who currently have to file finance information with the state and the local authority.
Another matter that has surfaced in previous meetings, Milfred said, is the effect of staggered reporting requirements that force participating candidates to disclose donor information before non-participating candidates must do so. This may give certain candidates an edge in targeting outreach based on opponents’ records, he said.
The Democracy Fund debuted in New Haven in 2007.