DC Citizens On the Verge of Major Campaign Finance Reform

Mayor Balks As Council Backs Public Financing Plan

Posted by Dale Eisman on January 26, 2018


A citizens’ movement has brought the city government in our nation’s capital to the verge of implementing a tested-and-proven-effective way of breaking the power of big money in politics and getting candidates to focus their attention on public, not private interests.

But Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, whose election in 2014 was spawned largely by voter outrage over a campaign finance scandal that touched her predecessor, is trying to stop it.

The good news is that the City Council can overrule the mayor. And thanks to grassroots support for a reform plan approved early in January, Council members appear to have the votes to beat her.

The Council’s plan, unanimously adopted on Jan. 9, invites candidates for local office to swear off big dollar donations from individuals and political action groups in favor of small gifts supplemented by grants from a special public fund.

These kinds of plans have been around for years for statewide elections in Connecticut, Maine and Arizona, and cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

“By enacting a public financing program and government contractor contribution restrictions (the Council is expected to move on those soon), D.C. would simply be catching up with America’s greatest, biggest cities,” Paul S. Ryan, Common Cause’s vice president for policy and litigation told The Washington Post. “D.C. would be catching up, not breaking ground.”

Bowser’s opposition doesn’t mesh with the reform rhetoric she originally ran on, and polls indicate it’s out of step with public sentiment in the District. Even so, the mayor has announced that her proposed budget for 2018-19 will not include the money needed to implement the system.

The program would cost $3.8 million in 2010, its first year, and $7.9 million in 2021. By way of comparison, the city’s total budget for the current year is $13.9 billion, so the program would account for only six one-hundredths of one percent of the city’s spending. That’s an exceedingly small price to pay for a change that would dramatically broaden the city’s political power base and allow folks of modest means to run credible and often successful campaigns for local office.

Bowser has had little to say about why she opposes the Council’s plan; The Post reported Thursday that she refused its request for an interview on the subject.

But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist – or a political scientist – to see what’s most likely driving her. As an incumbent, Bowser enjoys connections to the city’s business establishment and the deep pockets of its bankers, lawyers and developers. The reform plan embraced by the Council would give potential challengers without such connections a big assist in leveling the playing field.

The Post reports that “Bowser has proved herself a prodigious fundraiser.” She collected approximately $3.6 million for her 2014 mayoral campaign, and for this year’s reelection drive brought in $1.4 million in just the first 80 days of her campaign.

Still, Bowser of all people should know the dangers that have driven so many of her constituents to support the Council’s plan. In the last five years alone, five DC Council members – all now retired – have been felled by ethical shortcomings, including accepting bribes and violating campaign finance laws.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Money in Politics

Tags: Empowering Small Donors, Fighting Big Money

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