Did Cincinnati voters know what they were doing when they approved a charter amendment for campaign finance reform?
John Kruse of Hyde Park says no. Kruse is trying to remove public funding from the package of reforms that appeared on the November 2001 ballot as Issue 6.
The amendment established contribution limits for all council candidates and offers 2-to-1 public financing for candidates who agree to certain spending limits. The measure takes effect with the next city elections in 2003.
For example, a council candidate who raises $20,000 through small contributions would be eligible for $40,000 in matching funds. The matches end once a candidate raises the equivalent of a council member's salary, or about $55,000.
Kruse, a salesman for Sun Microsystems, unsuccessfully ran for city council as a Republican in 1993 and 1995. He also successfully sued to repeal a 1994 charter amendment that restricted campaign spending. The U.S. Supreme Court has said spending limits are an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.
Kruse has no plans to run for council again. He does, however, vehemently oppose using tax dollars to pay for campaigns — especially for people he might disagree with. So he's gathering signatures for a ballot issue to prohibit spending city tax dollars on campaigns.
"I felt like it needed to be done," Kruse says.
But why not let Issue 6 take effect for one election cycle to see if it works?
"I just think we're paying too damn much in taxes," Kruse says.
Chris Finney, treasurer of Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), is helping Kruse. Finney says he doesn't want the city to spend even $5 to find out if Issue 6 helps. It's difficult to estimate how much Issue 6 will cost, but $1.5 to $2 million every two years seems possible.
The current system isn't broken, Kruse and Finney say. Candidates who work hard enough can get elected.
"It can be done. It's a matter of will," Kruse says. "I'm so tired of the concept that 'I want something for nothing."
Kruse also believes Cincinnati voters didn't realize they were agreeing to spend tax dollars on campaigns and wouldn't have voted for it if they did.
"We'll get it reversed," he says. "I'm confident of that."
Bill Woods of Hyde Park, one of the co-chairs of Citizens For Fair Elections — a coalition of 18 grass-roots organizations that proposed Issue 6 — says they didn't try to conceal the public funding.
"We sold this issue as a total package of campaign finance reform," he says.
Issue 6 won approval by 547 votes — less than 1 percent of the total number cast. Woods acknowledges some of the details might have been unclear.
"There may have been some people who didn't realize they were voting for public financing," he says.
But Woods believes people would support public funding if it were explained to them.
Woods and other Issue 6 backers believe the increasing cost of campaigns is discouraging new candidates from running, and the candidates who run are too beholden to big contributors.
Kruse and Finney counter that the amount of money raised is a reflection of a candidate's efforts and money doesn't automatically influence political decisions. Former Councilman Phil Heimlich, for example, voted against a $450 million expansion of the city's convention center, despite heavy pressure from his contributors.
The group No Taxes For City Council Campaigns spent about $70,000 — five times as much as Citizens for Fair Elections — in a losing effort. Voters had no idea who financed the opposition campaign, because none of their contributions came in until after Oct. 20, the last reporting deadline before election day.
Reaching people takes money, Kruse says.
"We have a society that sits at home in the evenings and watches TV," he says.
But that's the way to reach people, he says.
Kruse doesn't downplay the difficulty of running a campaign and maintaining a non-political life, which he barely managed in 1995.
"I almost lost my job," he says.
He would support some sort of incentive to lower the cost of TV ads. Or maybe there's a way to use CitiCable or the Internet to foster low-cost or no-cost political debate.
"The easy answer is to raise taxes to solve the problem," Kruse says.