LOS ANGELES — Despite being urged by a coalition of 52 local, state, and national organizations to amend proposed changes to Los Angeles’s small donor matching funds system, the Los Angeles City Council passed without discussion a recommendation by the City Rules Committee to codify the package with only a minor change. The coalition requested the amendment to stop drastic reductions in the number of qualified women and other candidates who can access public campaign financing.
“We were blindsided by Council President Wesson’s ‘hybrid’ plan, which we fear is no solution. Unfortunately this looks to have been about changing the headlines, and not about an earnest attempt to avoid changes to the matching funds program leaving mostly incumbents and those with big money backers able to access it,” said Michele Sutter, director of MOVI, Money Out Voters In. “This is especially likely to disadvantage women, who are disproportionately underrepresented on the City Council.”
The need to increase access to public financing, rather than decrease it, is especially acute for women, who have historically been dramatically underrepresented on Los Angeles City Council. A 2017 study by the New York City Council’s Women’s Caucus found that of the 10 most populous U.S. cities, Los Angeles has the worst representation of women on city councils. In the entire history of the city of Los Angeles, there have been only 18 female Councilmembers and in 2018 there are only 2 women out of 15 Councilmembers, a mere 13%. Both were elected with the help of matching funds.
“The City Council continues to take baby steps in campaign finance reform,” said Kati Phillips, spokesperson for California Common Cause. “The $6 to $1 match should entice candidates to spend more time talking to in-district donors rather than chasing wealthy special interests. But we are concerned that the qualifying threshold could be too high for women, young people or community members who are not traditionally at the table. We need a campaign matching fund that allows a diversity of voices to represent our city. As is, this package falls short.”
A letter from the reform coalition applauded the Council’s October 5th adoption of the Ethics Commission’s original matching funds recommendations, most importantly increasing the matching rate to 6-to-1, and a proposal from Councilmembers David Ryu and Joe Buscaino to lower the maximum amount matched per contributor to $115 for City Council and $215 for city-wide offices so that matching funds benefit primarily small donors. But the letter strongly urged the Council to adopt a motion by Councilmember Mike Bonin, seconded by Councilmembers Paul Koretz and David Ryu, to adjust the aggregate qualifying threshold saying that otherwise it would be “significantly harder for candidates to qualify for the matching funds program in the first place.”
“The League of Women Voters of Los Angeles appreciates the October rule changes, which empowers small donors,” said Carolina Goodman, “However, it makes it harder for women and other grassroots candidates to qualify for matching funds. Councilmember Bonin’s amendment addresses that problem and would make the overall package of reforms a model for other cities.”
Under current law, candidates can qualify for matching funds by gathering 100 max qualifying contributions of $250 from LA residents. Councilmember Bonin’s amendment called for adjusting the aggregate qualifying threshold so the ordinance doesn’t require a greater number than current law, i.e., $11,500 because the new max qualifying contribution will be only $115. A California Clean Money Campaign report released Monday showed that without this change, the number of candidates who ran from 2013-2017 who would have been able to qualify would have been slashed by more than half, with an even more devastating impact on the number of women who would be able to qualify.
Yesterday, however, Council President Wesson and Councilmember Harris-Dawson voted in the Rules Committee to only lower the aggregate threshold from $25,000 to $20,000, meaning that the whole package that Council voted to codify will require nearly twice as many max qualifying contributions (174) to qualify as current law. They forwarded Councilmember Bonin’s amendment to the Ethics Commission for its recommendations, but when the Ethics Commission originally recommended changes to the matching fund program in 2015, they never even got a Council vote.
“The committee’s decision is a blow to LA Forward’s work to engage millennials in solving the city’s biggest challenges,” said David Levitus, its Executive Director. “This vote will deepen the cynicism of a rising generation about the power of money in politics and the reluctance of our elected officials to stand up for what’s right.”
The California Clean Money Campaign’s analysis shows that incumbent Councilmembers will be able to easily qualify for matching funds under the package Council passed, but the number of Council candidates from 2013-2017 who would have been able to qualify overall would be slashed from 44 down to only 28, barely over one per race on average. Women candidates would have been even more drastically impacted, with only 6 able to qualify in all three election cycles combined.
“As another corruption scandal at City Hall plays out, council missed an opportunity to restore faith in representative government in LA,” said Rob Quan, organizer with Unrig LA. “One thing in this vote is transparent, our elected officials are far more concerned with their self-preservation and reinforcing incumbency protections than any interest in a more democratic process with competitive elections where women and grassroots candidates get a fair chance.”
“Council President Wesson’s and Councilmember Harris-Dawson’s Rules Committee votes assured that the Old Boy’s Club will shut out women candidates and fresh faces, both of which have nearly vanished from our non-representative L.A. City Council,” said Jill Stewart, executive director, Coalition to Preserve LA. “While the world rushes to embrace gender diversity, they stepped back, assuring that men with connections will grab the City Council seats.”
“Council President Wesson had the opportunity to lead council to give Los Angeles one of the strongest small donor matching funds systems in the nation. Instead, City Council voted to codify amendments that are likely to slash the number of women and other candidates who have access,” said Trent Lange, President of the California Clean Money Campaign. “We hope that the Ethics Commission quickly analyzes Councilmember Bonin’s amendment and that the Rules Committee swiftly forwards it for a vote. Otherwise, Council President Wesson’s legacy will be one of shutting numerous serious candidates out of the process, especially women.”