The influence of big money in politics has taken on special importance in the 2016 presidential election, as Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 has faced criticism for accepting donations from the country’s dominant financial firms.
But the issue is not strictly national in character. In City Hall Tuesday night, activists came together to discuss how to lessen the influence of money in politics on a local level. The public forum was organized by the New Haven Democracy Fund, a city organization that provides public funds to mayoral campaigns. Mayor Toni Harp attended the meeting to answer questions from community members regarding the future of public-election financing in the city, which activists in attendance claimed is crucial to civic engagement in New Haven.
Jared Milfred ’16, the chair of the fund, said the organization’s purpose is to ensure that all citizens are connected to city politics and engaged in civic life.
“Cities today are more important than ever,” he said. “People today are looking to their city governments to prove services like never before — but at the same time, people are very disengaged with city politics.”
Formed in 2007, the Democracy Fund is the only organization of its type in the state. Using a combination of block grants and matching funds, it gives public money to mayoral candidates if they agree to limit individual contributions to $370 and to accept no donations from political committees or businesses. Campaigns must receive donations from at least 200 city residents to be eligible for funding.
Though it currently covers only mayoral races, some activists have suggested expanding the fund to cover other races. Milfred said one goal of the fund going forward is to provide funding for elections to the Board of Education and City Clerk.
Various organizations have made expanding the Democracy Fund’s remit a priority of their activism in the coming year. Aaron Goode ’04, who works with the New Haven Votes Coalition, said the fund is a crucial part of civic engagement.
“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a blood sport, either, but it’s not a spectator sport.”
Goode added that, at a recent conference he attended in New Hampshire, participants were “amazed” that New Haven has a municipal-level public-financing organization in addition to the state’s analogous fund.
Ugonna Eze ’16, who ran as a Republican for Ward 1 alder in November, said he would like to see the fund expanded to cover aldermanic races, a proposal that has been repeatedly discussed by the fund in past meetings. Eze said much of his campaign was spent fundraising — but that time could have been better spent talking to voters.
“The way we thought about this issue when we were running was that it’s not a Democrat or Republican issue,” he said. “What this fund is trying to push, I think, is ‘What kind of democracy do we want to see in New Haven as an end-goal?’ How do we lower the barrier for making it easier for people to get involved in city politics?”
Though Harp has been skeptical of the Democracy Fund in the past — in a 2013 mayoral debate, Harp said the Fund allows “sore losers” to run indefinitely — she praised its role in New Haven politics.
“I think it’s important that it exists, and it has certainly made our elections more vibrant over the years,” she said. “While I served in the State Senate, I was an advocate for the legislation that eventually led to the Citizen’s Election Program.”
The Citizens’ Election Program — the state’s analogue to the Democracy Fund — was another point of discussion at the meeting. A favorite of progressives in the state, the program’s future was put in jeopardy in late 2015 when the state Democrats proposed its suspension for the 2016 elections. After uproar within the party’s base, especially among young lawmakers, the party reneged on the proposal.
Cheri Quickmire, executive director of the advocacy group Common Cause in Connecticut, said the Citizens’ Election Program is a centerpiece of electoral reform in the state and can serve as a model for other states.
“One of the ways we [promote democracy], and continue to do that, is the CEP,” she said. “We go around the country and talk about our model, and people are just stunned that we have the level of participation we do.”