Campaign finance reform – no half measure

May 7, 2017

Stew Jenkins

OPINION by STEW JENKINS

One of my Grandfathers, Newton Jenkins, started his political career as a Republican Chicago Alderman back when Big Bill Thompson was mayor. According to family history, two gentlemen lived with the family at their home. They were proud of their titles: henchmen. They not only scoured the ward to find out who needed work and who need city services, but brought bags with them to collect the stream of contributions necessary to maintaining Newton’s political operations.

Influential as Big Bill Thompson was, the actual power behind the Republican machine that ran Chicago was another prominent Republican, Al Capone. Newton Jenkins broke with Thompson and Capone as the depth of their depravity became evident, turning his political operation, as a progressive Republican, to oust Thompson and elect Democrat Tony Cermak in 1931.

Cermak, with the Kelley-Nash Democratic organization, worked to drive Capone’s organization out of Chicago. You will understand that grampa, and his henchmen, were packing when they traveled around town. Mayor Cermak was assassinated part way through his term. Even the polling places had to be protected with armed police officers throughout the city. My branch of the family became Democrats.

Decades later, I would ask my grandmother if that sea change had made a difference in Chicago’s corrupt climate. She said it did not end the bootlegging, the houses of ill repute, or the bagmen scouring the neighborhoods for campaign contributions and folks in need of favors. But it did stop the massacres of political opponents and supporters at election time and on holidays like Valentine’s Day.

Al Capone

Instead of elections being decided by bullets and pistol-whippings, they improved to be decided by a candidate’s power to raise money and deliver voters to the polls. And turnout was outstanding, at least in Grampa’s ward.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Voter turnout is tragically low. And why? Because voters see that national and state elections are solidly in the hands of wealthy donors and corporations.

Candidates for office tend to be millionaires, or billionaires. Only labor unions have been in a position to serve as a modest counterweight of people-power to the oversized influence wielded by the few wealthiest Americans. Rather than empowering the people, campaign finance “reforms” have generally increased the power of the wealthy. It is past time to do something about it.

All politics is local. And local politics is where good ideas have the chance to be tried out before going national.  So, it was heartening on May 2 to see the folks at the Citizens’ Congress pushing the San Luis Obispo City Council for the second time in two years to consider a public campaign finance option.

Tragically, even with Councilwoman Pease’s and Mayor Harmon’s support, they could not get the proposal on an agenda for consideration, improvement or a vote. Even the U.S. Supreme Court takes in matters to be decided if a minority sees it worthy of consideration.

Instead of trying out the model of public campaign that Maine and Arizona have pioneered, which have survived most court challenges of their elements, my friend Bill Ostrander has been pushing (with the Citizens’ Congress) a voucher system borrowed from Seattle’s new untested model, where every city registered voter gets a voucher which they can give to one candidate, or divide among the candidates as they choose, in each city election. The voucher cannot be cashed or sold, but is turned by the city clerk into campaign cash.

Like the Maine and Arizona public finance systems, the Citizens’ Congress proposal depends on candidates voluntarily signing up to the program, covenanting not to take any private contributions in exchange for eligibility to take the vouchers.

Both models depend on a candidate giving up the constitutionally protected First Amendment right of the candidate to accept contributions, in exchange for access to the public financing.  The Citizens’ Congress proposal would give every voter one $20 voucher. It also limits independent expenditures to $500 on city races, and it puts a stranglehold on contributions to candidates over $300.

One need only look at Randall v. Sorrell, 548 U.S. 230, authored by liberal Justice Breyer in 2006, to see that both of these latter elements are unconstitutional. Neither will survive a court challenge. And, why should they?

If you like Heidi Harmon, and independently want to support her by purchasing a three-month CalCoastNews banner ad, or a single one-quarter page add in the Tribune (both about $1,275), your personal free speech rights are completely throttled by the $500 limit on independent expenditure.

As to candidate contributions, Justice Breyer noted that “contribution limits … implicate fundamental First Amendment interests, namely, the freedoms of political expression and political association.” He went on to explain, as the court struck down a $300 limit on contributions, “that contribution limits might sometimes work more harm to protected First Amendment interests than their anticorruption objectives could justify.”

Justice Breyer observed that “the lowest limit that the U.S. Supreme Court has previously upheld, was the limit of $1,075 per election (adjusted for inflation every two years).” By 2006, Justice Breyer noted adjustments for inflation had made this “lowest” acceptable limit on contributions $1,275.

So, the limits on candidates who refuse the public financing option will be struck down, eviscerating the campaigns of those depending on what can be generated from voters’ $20 vouchers.

Still, Bill Ostrander and the Citizens’ Congress should be supported in their effort to bring a public campaign finance proposal to the City of San Luis Obispo. And the vouchers, given to every voter for making his/her contributions is an intriguing way to empower the voter of SLO (instead of outside developers and special interests) to positively exercise “political expression and political association” in city elections.

But at present, the proposal’s major feature – the wretchedly small $20 voucher – amounts to a half measure that is not big enough to attract candidates and wean them off constant fundraising. Particularly when in every city election there are at least three seats on Council that are in play.

Bill Ostrander

What voter will think that giving $6.67 to each of his/her favorite three candidates amounts to political expression or association? And what candidate will think that enough to put a drop in his/her need for getting his/her message out to voters?

Councilwoman Christianson’s suggestion that this is not the right time or the right place for campaign finance reform is just flat wrong. There is no better place and there is no better time to institute a public finance city ordinance; particularly before she starts collecting developer contributions for the next council election.

But to make the program viable, the voucher will need to be increased in value four-fold to attract voters and candidates to use the public finance system. To preserve viability, vouchers must increase in value with the cost of living. And the unconstitutional portions of the proposal must be pruned.

Advances in democracy take thoughtful courage. Council members, like Christianson, dependent on the big developer donations will never change the current system. They like it. A citizens’ initiative is the only way that this, or any, public finance ordinance will ever be adopted in the city of San Luis Obispo.

Stew Jenkins is a San Luis Obispo County Liberal Democrat who supports the rights of working people to organize unions, growing the local economy through project labor agreements, the right of all people to health care and equal dignity.

He is an attorney practicing in San Luis Obispo since 1978. Jenkins’ handles tax payer suits, municipal law, estate planning and family law.







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12 Comments

  1. SLO_Johnny says:

    ” Fast forward to the 21st century. Voter turnout is tragically low. And why? Because voters see that national and state elections are solidly in the hands of wealthy donors and corporations.”

    Do you have ANY proof of this statement?

    (-5) 11 Total Votes - 3 up - 8 down
  2. kayaknut says:

    I’d prefer to see “real” term limits instead. One that doesn’t allow job hoping.

    (4) 12 Total Votes - 8 up - 4 down
    • r0y says:

      Yeah, a fantasy of mine is living in a country where one can only have a maximum of 10 years of government employment at any level. Period. Teachers and professors would be up in arms, but the trade-off might just be worth it.

      Imagine, teaching, administrating, managing, working for the government with a REAL background from the private sector! Teachers and professors would have real experiences and wisdom instead of propaganda, government agencies would think twice before taxing the shit out of everyone without thought…

      Ah well, it’s not a perfect plan, and there are a lot of kinks to work out, the largest being human green (which big government / socialism feeds), but I think it would be worth a shot.

      (1) 3 Total Votes - 2 up - 1 down
  3. Kevin Rice says:

    What I find most interesting is, Adam Hill and the most entrenched corporate Dems are the worst offenders. It seems to me that Dems don’t care about money in politics because they keep electing the corporate-developer shills. And, “democracy vouchers” can’t even win MAJORITY support from a all Democratic city council. Hmm.

    (4) 18 Total Votes - 11 up - 7 down
  4. TaxMeAgain says:

    Here’s the fix: Each candidate, from Mayor to President, get’s a pre-defined, templated website with questions to answer, plans to document, and a forum to interact. IF you want to vote, you learn about each candidate from there. No corporate, personal, or tax dollars. No advertising, no media buys, nothing!

    S I M P L E.

    (0) 20 Total Votes - 10 up - 10 down
  5. SLOnative says:

    Sound bites and small print ads limit what a candidate can say. Media loves selling time and space. Direct mail is more effective. Picking a dollar amount doesn’t account for inflation of ad space/time.

    (3) 11 Total Votes - 7 up - 4 down
  6. rukidding says:

    The concept sounds good but unfortunately I do not think that money will ever be controlled within politics. Locally it is apparent that, for the most part, money will buy a political position. $20,000 +/- for a local city council seat? That is nothing more than obnoxious. Hundreds of thousands dollars for a supervisor seat? Obnoxious again. Outside contributors making donations within our local jurisdictions makes it all pretty easy to see how it works. Like most questionable issues all one has to do is follow the money. Consequently most politicians are not going to put a zipper on their deep pocket their contributors. These contributions are given for a reason and usually the politicians vote will reflect that.

    (6) 16 Total Votes - 11 up - 5 down
  7. shelworth says:

    I think a better idea is that the day after the election, win or lose, a politician’s entire “War-chest” of Campaign funds goes straight into the General Fund of that State. Not one cent could be converted into “Personal” wealth.

    (0) 14 Total Votes - 7 up - 7 down
  8. Sulla says:

    The only problem with this proposal is, who will enforce it? The City Attorney who is appointed by the city council? Oh please! Enforcement of any law against those “invested with the power of government” depends on an independent law enforcement agency. Make the City Attorney independent of the council by making that office elective by a vote of the people!

    (15) 19 Total Votes - 17 up - 2 down

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