News: Paying for Democracy

Of course campaign finance reform isn't free

 


Almost everyone in Cincinnati wants campaign finance reform. We just can't agree on how much the city needs.

Issue 6,proposed city charter amendment, calls for major changes that supporters believe will allow idea-rich but dollar-poor candidates to better compete for a seat on Cincinnati City Council. The proposal includes public financing of campaigns, spending and contribution limits, a new council-appointed body to monitor campaigns and new reporting requirements.

Opponents say the amendment creates unnecessary bureaucracy, it's wrong to spend city dollars on campaigns and there's little evidence money is keeping serious candidates out of office.

Citizens For Fair Elections, a coalition of 18 organizations, began working on Issue 6 in late 1998, when city council threw out contribution limits.

Those limits were all that remained of a reform effort that peaked in 1995. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the spending limits before they could take effect, ruling they violated freedom of speech.

Issue 6 is an attempt to help poorer candidates in what are becoming very expensive city council campaigns. Campaign spending increased from $736,000 by 22 candidates in 1993 to $2.46 million by 20 candidates in 1999.

Citizens For Fair Elections studied other cities' reforms, held three focus groups and spent last summer gathering the signatures needed to put the charter amendment on the ballot.

Issue 6 is modeled on public financing in New York City and Tucson, Ariz., according to Bill Woods, one of three campaign co-chairs. The main difference between the old and new charter amendments is Issue 6 allows candidates to raise and spend as much money as they want. But if they want public financing — two dollars for every one they raise — council candidates must agree to spend no more than $165,000 during the election cycle, a limit set at three times the job's salary.

First, however, candidates must raise $5,000 from at least 150 contributions of $10 or more.

The amendment would bar all candidates from accepting contributions larger than $1,000 from individuals, $2,500 from political action committees and $10,000 from a political party or another campaign fund.

Public financing is probably the most controversial part of Issue 6, the part that has divided party members and might drag the charter amendment under.

Woods says that in an average year the city would spend about $2 million — not a lot to get new voices involved in the democratic process. Cynicism is rampant among voters, he says, because there's so much money involved.

Opponents, such as Republican council candidate Todd Ward, says there's no way to know how much Issue 6 will cost. In any case, the money would be better spent on paving streets or cleaning neighborhoods, Ward says. Financing the views of candidates is not the way tax dollars should be spent, he says.

"Initially, that might have been my reservation," Woods says. "I guess it depends on how much you value democracy and whether you think it's in jeopardy."

Everything's fine as it is
Ward and others, such as Aaron Herzig of Civic Solutions, a downtown consulting firm, don't see many problems with the current system. In an Oct. 18 debate with Woods and Ed Burdell, Woods' partner in the consulting firm Applied Information Resources, Herzig called Issue 6 a "flawed solution in search of a problem."

Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr., R-Cincinnati, calls supporters of Issue 6 "crybabies." If people like your ideas, money and votes will follow, he says. Brinkman spent $100,000 last year and beat a Republican Party-backed candidate who spent $300,000, he says.

Fred Nelson, a partner in Herzig's consulting firm, says Issue 6 would hurt Republicans. Only a few non-incumbent Republican candidates have managed to win a council seat in the past decade, and they had to raise a lot of money to do so, Nelson says.

Democratic candidates such as Tyrone Yates and Alicia Reece have spent much less because they're able to take advantage of grassroots and political networks already in place, according to Nelson.

"So for them to pretend that it's a politically neutral (amendment) doesn't wash," he says.

That statement doesn't wash with John Schlagetter, a second-time city council candidate endorsed by the Charter Committee. Schlagetter, an architect, says Republicans like to argue the city doesn't have many Republican voters, but success is really a matter of effort. Having lots of money just makes it easier to be more distanced from voters, and it's easier for Republicans to raise money, he says.

Schlagetter doesn't support Issue 6, however, because it includes public financing.

Herzig and Nelson also argue the voluntary spending limits would restrict candidates' free speech.

"Why limit debate?" Herzig says.

Burdell and Woods call that a "bogus" argument because candidates who don't want public financing won't have to follow the spending limits.

"Does your vision of free speech resemble piles of dollar bills?" Burdell asks.

TV commercials aren't designed to conduct thoughtful political debate; they're designed to sell products, he says.

"This is not democracy in action," Burdell says. "This is public relations in action."

Council members have mixed feelings about Issue 6, with no one taking a strong stand in support of it.

Opponents include Republican councilmen Pat DeWine and Phil Heimlich, Mayor Charlie Luken and the group No Taxes For City Council Campaigns.

Supporters include former city managers Gerald Newfarmer and Sy Murray, former Councilwoman Bobbie Sterne, council candidates David Crowley and Jane Anderson and mayoral candidate Courtis Fuller.

Councilman John Cranley doesn't think $165,000 is enough money to publicize a new candidate's views. Councilman Paul Booth doesn't want to spend city money on campaigns while the city has a $25 million budget deficit looming. Councilwoman Minette Cooper likes most of Issue 6 but says spending limits have to apply to everyone to be meaningful. Booth and Cooper were two of the five council members who voted to repeal the old contribution limits in 1998.

Issue 6 backers admit the charter amendment isn't a one-shot cure-all. If it passes, Woods says there will probably be a need to regulate soft money, contributions funneled through another donor or political action committee.

For more information on Issue 6, visit the Cincinnati Area League of Women Voters' site at

 


Almost everyone in Cincinnati wants campaign finance reform. We just can't agree on how much the city needs.

Issue 6,proposed city charter amendment, calls for major changes that supporters believe will allow idea-rich but dollar-poor candidates to better compete for a seat on Cincinnati City Council. The proposal includes public financing of campaigns, spending and contribution limits, a new council-appointed body to monitor campaigns and new reporting requirements.

Opponents say the amendment creates unnecessary bureaucracy, it's wrong to spend city dollars on campaigns and there's little evidence money is keeping serious candidates out of office.

Citizens For Fair Elections, a coalition of 18 organizations, began working on Issue 6 in late 1998, when city council threw out contribution limits.

Those limits were all that remained of a reform effort that peaked in 1995. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the spending limits before they could take effect, ruling they violated freedom of speech.

Issue 6 is an attempt to help poorer candidates in what are becoming very expensive city council campaigns. Campaign spending increased from $736,000 by 22 candidates in 1993 to $2.46 million by 20 candidates in 1999.

Citizens For Fair Elections studied other cities' reforms, held three focus groups and spent last summer gathering the signatures needed to put the charter amendment on the ballot.

Issue 6 is modeled on public financing in New York City and Tucson, Ariz., according to Bill Woods, one of three campaign co-chairs. The main difference between the old and new charter amendments is Issue 6 allows candidates to raise and spend as much money as they want. But if they want public financing — two dollars for every one they raise — council candidates must agree to spend no more than $165,000 during the election cycle, a limit set at three times the job's salary.

First, however, candidates must raise $5,000 from at least 150 contributions of $10 or more.

The amendment would bar all candidates from accepting contributions larger than $1,000 from individuals, $2,500 from political action committees and $10,000 from a political party or another campaign fund.

Public financing is probably the most controversial part of Issue 6, the part that has divided party members and might drag the charter amendment under.

Woods says that in an average year the city would spend about $2 million — not a lot to get new voices involved in the democratic process. Cynicism is rampant among voters, he says, because there's so much money involved.

Opponents, such as Republican council candidate Todd Ward, says there's no way to know how much Issue 6 will cost. In any case, the money would be better spent on paving streets or cleaning neighborhoods, Ward says. Financing the views of candidates is not the way tax dollars should be spent, he says.

"Initially, that might have been my reservation," Woods says. "I guess it depends on how much you value democracy and whether you think it's in jeopardy."

Everything's fine as it is
Ward and others, such as Aaron Herzig of Civic Solutions, a downtown consulting firm, don't see many problems with the current system. In an Oct. 18 debate with Woods and Ed Burdell, Woods' partner in the consulting firm Applied Information Resources, Herzig called Issue 6 a "flawed solution in search of a problem."

Ohio Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr., R-Cincinnati, calls supporters of Issue 6 "crybabies." If people like your ideas, money and votes will follow, he says. Brinkman spent $100,000 last year and beat a Republican Party-backed candidate who spent $300,000, he says.

Fred Nelson, a partner in Herzig's consulting firm, says Issue 6 would hurt Republicans. Only a few non-incumbent Republican candidates have managed to win a council seat in the past decade, and they had to raise a lot of money to do so, Nelson says.

Democratic candidates such as Tyrone Yates and Alicia Reece have spent much less because they're able to take advantage of grassroots and political networks already in place, according to Nelson.

"So for them to pretend that it's a politically neutral (amendment) doesn't wash," he says.

That statement doesn't wash with John Schlagetter, a second-time city council candidate endorsed by the Charter Committee. Schlagetter, an architect, says Republicans like to argue the city doesn't have many Republican voters, but success is really a matter of effort. Having lots of money just makes it easier to be more distanced from voters, and it's easier for Republicans to raise money, he says.

Schlagetter doesn't support Issue 6, however, because it includes public financing.

Herzig and Nelson also argue the voluntary spending limits would restrict candidates' free speech.

"Why limit debate?" Herzig says.

Burdell and Woods call that a "bogus" argument because candidates who don't want public financing won't have to follow the spending limits.

"Does your vision of free speech resemble piles of dollar bills?" Burdell asks.

TV commercials aren't designed to conduct thoughtful political debate; they're designed to sell products, he says.

"This is not democracy in action," Burdell says. "This is public relations in action."

Council members have mixed feelings about Issue 6, with no one taking a strong stand in support of it.

Opponents include Republican councilmen Pat DeWine and Phil Heimlich, Mayor Charlie Luken and the group No Taxes For City Council Campaigns.

Supporters include former city managers Gerald Newfarmer and Sy Murray, former Councilwoman Bobbie Sterne, council candidates David Crowley and Jane Anderson and mayoral candidate Courtis Fuller.

Councilman John Cranley doesn't think $165,000 is enough money to publicize a new candidate's views. Councilman Paul Booth doesn't want to spend city money on campaigns while the city has a $25 million budget deficit looming. Councilwoman Minette Cooper likes most of Issue 6 but says spending limits have to apply to everyone to be meaningful. Booth and Cooper were two of the five council members who voted to repeal the old contribution limits in 1998.

Issue 6 backers admit the charter amendment isn't a one-shot cure-all. If it passes, Woods says there will probably be a need to regulate soft money, contributions funneled through another donor or political action committee.

For more information on Issue 6, visit the Cincinnati Area League of Women Voters' site at www.lwvcincinnati.org or the Citizens For Fair Elections' site at www.fairelections cincinnati.org. © Also, read past CityBeat coverage: Did City Council Ambush True Campaign Finance Reform? and Buying Back Council

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