For a concept that just makes such good sense, public financing of campaigns has a rocky history here in Washington State. Ever since 1992—when voters passed an initiative that prohibited public financing—local elections have become ever more expensive, rising from an average of around $50,000 to more than $300,000 for city council and mayoral races. Last year, council candidate Tim Burgess broke all previous local fundraising records for council races, collecting a whopping $353,000, including more than $85,000 of his own money. Mayor Greg Nickels, meanwhile, raised $537,000, and already has a $129,000 jump on his 2009 campaign.
All of this presents real barriers to entry for new candidates, people without connections, and those who aren't already wealthy. In the 2007 council elections, no challenger but (independently wealthy) Burgess came within $100,000 of any incumbent; and he was running against an unpopular incumbent. Sally Clark drew only nominal opposition (from an antinudity crusader and a perennial candidate), and Tom Rasmussen drew no opposition at all. Lauren Briel, who ran against Jean Godden, complained bitterly at the time that none of the political organizations that issue endorsements would even interview her—because she hadn't raised enough money. "When I started, I didn't realize how much [being taken seriously] was going to depend on how much money I had," Briel says now. "It became kind of a roadblock to getting any issues out there."
Clearly, the system is broken. Legislation in Olympia could give Seattle its first chance in nearly 15 years to fix it—allowing cities to put public financing (either total financing or matching funds, with a threshold to qualify and caps on spending) to a vote. Council Member Sally Clark says that if the bill passes (at press time, it's looking good), she'll propose legislation to put public financing on the ballot.
Clark says her interest in public financing comes from running two consecutive campaigns, in 2006 ($110,000) and 2007 ($177,000) where "I've seen more and more candidates chasing the [legal maximum] $700 check. Instead of focusing on getting the most large checks, what I would rather do is focus on getting a lot more people involved." According to figures compiled by Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett, the total number of small donations—those under $100—has declined 56 percent over the last three council election cycles. Put another way, that's 37 percent fewer people donating to local council races. "Public financing levels the playing field," Barnett says, opening the door to "people who don't have access to the folks who write big checks."
Last month, eight of nine council members sent a letter to the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee encouraging it to adopt the legislation; a spokesman for Mayor Greg Nickels said he's a "longtime supporter" of publicly financed campaigns.