Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ supporters are telling us something. Neither candidate’s success really has very much to do with border walls, free college or bad haircuts.
Rather, their rise in the polls represents an open rebellion against political parties that repeatedly thumb their noses at grassroots activists and working people, and instead allow wealthy financiers, elite Beltway insiders and entrenched politicians to stack the deck for chosen candidates. In 2014, for example, only three incumbent members of Congress — out of 535! — lost their primary elections.
Party endorsements controlled by insiders, leadership PACs that raise money for chosen candidates and other backroom chicanery ensure that party insiders’ preferred candidate is assured nomination even before most voters learn there’s a race. To the party bosses, it’s their election — we just vote in it.
I love Hillary, and may vote for her over Bernie, but it nauseates me that she became the consensus pick of the Democratic financial and political elite without a national conversation or any consideration of other, real choices.
Now, millions of Americans from both parties, tired of a system that goes over their heads to select nominees, are fighting back by supporting Trump and Sanders. We know that if regular people don’t have a voice in choosing our candidates, those candidates won’t be accountable to our concerns when they’re elected.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. For years, public financing of campaigns in Connecticut — and particularly New Haven — has helped grassroots, citizen-driven campaigns beat party elites. We should look to these programs for ways to empower American voters — and we should continue to build on these programs to make them stronger.
The state’s public-financing program provides substantial block grants to candidates who raise enough money in donations under $100 — and New Haven politicians have put it to good use. In 2008, a young activist named Gary Holder-Winfield used public financing to beat a party-endorsed alder in a primary for State Representative. In 2010, Alderman Roland Lemar, running for state representative, used public financing to triumph by nearly 30 percent over a wealthy opponent who spent over $40,000 of her own money on the campaign.
But even more exciting — and entirely unique to New Haven — is a long-standing experiment in Connecticut municipal politics: the Democracy Fund. The nonpartisan board, chaired by Jared Milfred ’16, provides block grants and matching funds to mayoral candidates who refuse PAC donations, set strict contribution limits and raise thousands of dollars from small, local donors.
In 2013, that system allowed Hillhouse High School principal Kermit Carolina to run a credible campaign for mayor funded by small-dollar donations from Dixwell and Newhallville, two of New Haven’s economically struggling neighborhoods. In a race where the leading candidates hailed from wealthy enclaves like East Rock and Westville, the $30,000 Carolina received from the Democracy Fund ensured that voices from otherwise marginalized neighborhoods were heard.
That same election, Alder Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10 ran a close race without raising any money from PACs, lobbyists or donations over $370, and raising the vast majority of his money locally — despite the fact that his opponent, then-state Sen. Toni Harp ARC ’78, had the local party’s support and outspent him two to one. The $55,000 in Democracy Fund block grants and matching funds helped Elicker spread his clean-money message around New Haven.
The future of the Democracy Fund was discussed at a City Hall event last week. Harp expressed her support for the fund, Milfred proposed expanding its reach to citywide races for Board of Education and city clerk (which were barely contested in 2015) and Ugonna Eze ’16 proposed that the fund also be expanded to cover alder races.
Opponents of expanding the fund, including several alders, say they’re not opposed to public financing, but don’t think it’s worth the expense. I applaud fiscal responsibility, but in this case I disagree. The less power special interests, developers and wealthy donors have, the less money we’ll waste on pay-to-play giveaways. (It’s no coincidence that when New Haven spent $1.5 billion on school construction projects, contributions from construction companies flooded Mayor John DeStefano’s campaign coffers.) Public financing would allow more regular, working New Haveners — who do not have thousands of dollars lying around — to run a winning campaign without turning to powerful interest groups. Having a Board of Alders that is truly representative of the community it serves is worth spending money for.
New Haven should follow Milfred’s suggestions and expand this incredible program that empowers small donors and grassroots candidates.
And people around the country who feel tricked and alienated by the political process — so much so that they’re rallying around two old men with weird hair and fringe policies — should advocate for public-financing programs, like New Haven’s, that give citizens, not party elites, more power to choose their representatives.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .