Should Taxpayers Pay Politicians to Run for Office?

City Officials Consider Ballot Measure to Publicly Fund Campaigns

Should Taxpayers Pay Politicians to Run for Office?

Robert Ullman

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Unlike most local politicians seeking office, Seattle City Council member Mike O'Brien didn't announce his 2013 campaign for reelection at a large catered party packed with wealthy donors and union representatives. Instead, he announced his reelection bid 22 times last spring, at small events held in living rooms, coffee shops, even after-hours work spaces. And with each announcement came an unusual ask: just $10.

"I won't be accepting campaign contributions for amounts over $10 until I've raised $10,000 from 1,000 different people," O'Brien explained at the time. It took him three months to reach his goal. While O'Brien's $10 by 1,000 pledge may sound gimmicky, it could be the future of political fundraising in Seattle. The Seattle City Council is considering a system to publicly finance campaigns, a move that some argue could help balance the influence of money in local elections.

"It's been a successful program [for us]," explained Los Angeles City Ethics Commission executive director Heather Holt to a modest crowd of political nerds assembled at Seattle University on January 31. "We've seen more candidates, it's helped candidates raise issues and have a voice, and it allows the public to have a greater say in their election process."

But, of course, there's a downside. "You're telling citizens that their taxpayer money will go to support candidates that they may not prefer, or to support ideologies that they may not support," says George Allen, vice president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Allen says his business organization won't take a position on publicly financing campaigns "until there's something to vote on." However, this framing mirrors that of business groups that have killed similar measures, most recently in Portland.

"That will be one of the challenges—convincing people that it will cost a little bit of money," concedes O'Brien. "But it will make our democracy stronger for all people."

The push for publicly financed election campaigns in Seattle officially began last month, when Council Members O'Brien, Sally Clark, and Nick Licata asked the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to update a 2008 report detailing public campaign finance options for Seattle. (Seattle was ready to adopt a campaign finance reform measure that year, but shelved it during the economic crisis.)

The 2008 report identifies two viable models for Seattle financing candidate campaigns:

• A matching model: In this scenario, city council candidates would be asked to raise $10,000 in increments of $100 or less to qualify for $30,000 from the city. After that, the city would match donor amounts up to $250 on a 3:1 basis (if the candidate had a challenger).

• A lump-sum model: In this scenario, tested last year by O'Brien, candidates who collected $10 from 1,000 registered voters would qualify for $30,000 from the city. This would be followed by an additional $110,000 lump sum once a challenger entered the race, with another cash dump coming for those who make it through the primary. (In 2011, the US Supreme Court found that Arizona's lump-sum model violated individuals' right to raise private funds; Seattle's model would need to be tweaked to ensure its constitutionality.)

Why publicly finance campaigns? Some people point to Seattle's 2011 election to illustrate the problem. During that election cycle, Seattle had fewer candidates running for office than any time since 1995, a drop in small contributions, a record high in the average size of contributions, top donors contributing almost exclusively to incumbents—and all this on top of massive $100,000 incumbent war chests scaring off challengers.

Despite their huge fundraising advantages, council members spent, on average, just $201,000 on their campaigns in 2011. By contrast, both 2008 public-financing models would cap contributions at $250,000, meaning participating candidates should have plenty of funds to launch viable campaigns.

Critics of our current system also point to our election cycle. While Mayor Mike McGinn is now facing seven heavy-hitting challengers, not one of the four council members up for reelection is being challenged, and political consultants have privately admitted that they are unlikely to take on a city council candidate who lacked six-figure fundraising prospects. City council seats are a litmus test of a well-functioning governing body. These seats are often sought by neighborhood advocates and grassroots activists who have a vision for the city but not necessarily the big name, deep pockets, or stacked résumé that higher positions demand.

The experiences of Los Angeles and San Francisco suggest that public financing doesn't diminish the inherent advantage that incumbents enjoy, but it does encourage more candidates to run for office, while promoting smaller and more local contributions. The speakers at the forum also noted that viable challengers make city elections more issue-driven, forcing incumbents to answer for unpopular decisions.

But the programs aren't without their downsides, most notably the dramatic increase in independent expenditures recorded in both cities (mostly by PACs). Independent expenditures increased in LA from $7,000 to more than $1 million in the first year following its public finance system.

Here in Seattle, we'll have to wait until early March to hear the SEEC's updated recommendations for how a public finance model would best work, and exactly what the cost would be. From there, the council will have to hash out the issue of how to foot the $3-million-plus annual price tag, most likely through a property tax levy or the city's general fund. And, of course, convince voters that it's worth the price.

"It will cost a little bit of money, but it'll make our democracy stronger for everyone," O'Brien says, adding that it would be "a small price to pay for more competitive races and broader diversity." recommended


Comments (11) RSS

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In a way,those same politicians are already taking our money (via the donors who overcharge for evils and disservices,don't pay any or not their fair share of fares,fees,fines,taxes,and tolls as owners of corporate "persons"). ---- ----LEARN FROM EUROPE.
Posted by 5th Columnist on February 9, 2013 at 12:47 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 10
@5 is my favorite bot account ever. Please keep him around. He's so polite.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 8, 2013 at 8:01 PM · Report this
TheMisanthrope 9
If we publicly funded candidates, there would also have to be a city/county-wide ban on any independent expenditures on behalf of the candidate. And, on fundraising as well. On top of that, there needs to be an oversight department. If rules were followed and maintained, it could be great.

I support this system.
Posted by TheMisanthrope on February 8, 2013 at 8:00 PM · Report this
The company I work for flies in candidates for the jobs we have open, so members of the team have the chance to know them better before we decide who we want to hire. I see the City Council proposal the same way: people need the chance to talk with the candidates so we can pick the best one to represent us. I don't see a job interview as "supporting someone's position", like the guy from the Chamber of Commerce suggests. Typically, when you interview you want to have a number of choices; we "support" the one we hire. The thing that's broken about elections now is that we're drowned in advertising from factions who want to push _their_ representatives on us. If we want to hear from a set of distinct options, I think _we_ need to pay to have them speak to us.
Posted by Bob Koerner on February 8, 2013 at 8:15 AM · Report this
@3: I'm not all the way convinced, but thank you for your food for thought.
Posted by auntie grizelda on February 7, 2013 at 11:00 PM · Report this
Jeremy Janson 6
I understand the concept, but to be frank, I don't think city elections are the worst in this regard. For starters, much campaigning at the municipal level can be done effectively by holding meetings in cafes and such, sort of like the New Hampshire Primary. What would help a lot more would be public debates held in places like vacant Sports Stadiums, provided for free to create dialogue.
Posted by Jeremy Janson on February 6, 2013 at 7:53 PM · Report this
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Posted by stainless steel signs on February 6, 2013 at 6:58 PM · Report this
That wasn't the point of the Supreme Court ruling in the Arizona case. They didn't claim that Arizona's model infringed upon a candidates ability to raise private funds. Rather, they claimed that privately funded candidates were unjustly burdened by a particular disincentive; that if they privately raised enough money, the model's matching scheme would kick in and their publicly funded opponents would receive roughly equal money. So by raising and spending private funds, well-funded candidates would "trigger" public money going to their opponents. This constitutes a form of punishment, according the majority. Unfortunately, both the Lump Sum model and the Matching Funds model floated by the committee report you mention include just such a trigger, granting extra money to public candidates if they get outspent by privately funded candidates. So, both models here are unconstitutional. Further, the price-tag you mention (2.3 to 3.2 million per annum it says in the committee report) is predicated on the assumption that extra funds will go to match being outspent by a privately funded candidate (the report is clear about this). Given the Supreme Court's ruling on Arizona, these projections are irrelevant.
Posted by Barr on February 6, 2013 at 3:09 PM · Report this
Public financing of elections is the only way to go. It's simple. If you qualify for running (whatever the criteria are), you get your share of the pot for that race. You can't use any other money, gifts, etc. That is your bucket. Your opponent has the same rules.

This gets private money (which is not speech) out of the equation and reduces the corrupting influence of same on our elections.
Posted by blackjenner on February 6, 2013 at 12:03 PM · Report this
I need a new keyboard--!!!! Correction: It may basically sound good....
Posted by auntie grizelda on February 6, 2013 at 11:55 AM · Report this
O'Brien's proposed "pay me to run" campaign finance method reeks of Koch Brother funded special interest Super-PAC bullshit to me. It may basically sound god, but still has more holes than a Salvation Army suit.
Posted by auntie grizelda on February 6, 2013 at 11:53 AM · Report this

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