How Could We Afford Not to Reform Campaigns?

What part of the budget will Cincinnati City Council cut in order to pay for candidates' campaigns in 2003? That's the question Chris Finney, vice chair of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spend

Nov 21, 2001 at 2:06 pm

What part of the budget will Cincinnati City Council cut in order to pay for candidates' campaigns in 2003?

That's the question Chris Finney, vice chair of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) now asks.

He asked the same thing before the election, trying to convince voters not to approve Issue 6 — the charter amendment on campaign finance.

But voters passed the amendment anyway, joining New York and a handful of other cities that have public financing of city council campaigns.

With all the votes counted, Issue 6 won a come-from-behind victory by 547 votes, or 0.64 percent of nearly 85,000 cast. The issue was very narrowly losing at the end of election night. With only a precinct from Pleasant Ridge missing, the charter amendment trailed by 108 votes. After the those results came in, it trailed by 23 votes — less than 0.01 percent of the total.

But on Nov. 17 the Hamilton County Board of Elections counted 3,084 walk-in ballots cast by citizens who voted at precincts where they weren't registered. The board recounts any race decided by a margin of 0.5 percent or less.

Anyone can ask for a recount if they're willing to pay $3,760, or $10 per city precinct. But No Taxes for City Council Campaigns, the anti-reform group, won't ask for a recount. Most recounts in major races only change the results by 10 votes or so, so it wouldn't be worth the expense, Finney says.

But that doesn't mean COAST is giving up its fight. The group could challenge Issue 6 in court or propose its own charter amendment as early as the May primary.

"It needs a hard look," Finney says.

Reforms similar to Issue 6 have withstood legal challenges.

Finney says the Cincinnati media didn't educate voters about Issue 6, particularly its provision for public campaign financing.

The charter amendment provides a 2-to-1 match of campaign funds for candidates who agree to certain contribution and spending limits. For example, a participating candidate who raises $55,000 will get $110,000 in matching funds.

Candidates who reject the limits don't receive public funding and can spend all they want. But the amendment bars all candidates from accepting contributions larger than $1,000 from individuals, $2,500 from political action committees and $10,000 from political parties and other campaign funds.

That last part is the chief attraction of the amendment, according to Finney.

"There is a public sentiment in favor of regulating elections," he says.

People don't understand the implications for the First Amendment, Finney says.

Alice Schneider, campaign manager for Issue 6 proponents Citizens For Fair Elections, hopes Finney and other opponents give the new law a chance to work.

Schneider says Issue 6 backers made every effort to explain the proposal's details during their campaign.

"The opposition surely made it clear," she says. "I think people were aware of the money going in (to council campaigns) and wanted a change. I think most of the people did (understand)."

Finney has just one question: Where will the money come from to pay for council campaigns?

"That's not our decision," Schneider says.

Schneider hopes to work with Mayor Charlie Luken and city council to put Issue 6 into practice. She's a little worried about having to compete with everything else on council's agenda.

"That could be a problem," Schneider says.

The first item on the agenda for Schneider and company is to get Luken to appoint members to the Cincinnati Elections Commission, the body Issue 6 creates to monitor campaigns.

"Now we really have to begin sitting down and talking about what the next steps are," Schneider says.

Finney will be watching.

"The people of the city of Cincinnati have made their bed. Now they have to sleep in it," Finney says.

But perhaps Finney misses the point. Opponents spent about $70,000 trying to defeat the amendment, but lost to supporters, who spent only about $12,000. Doesn't that prove money doesn't always determine elections?