Answer to Chico’s unaffordable elections

Make it cheap to run for council by switching to districts

The author, a former editor-in-chief of the CN&R, is a steering committee member of Districts for Chico.

What was Chico Mayor Sean Morgan thinking?

After raising $64,078 in campaign contributions—the highest amount ever—in his successful 2016 re-election bid, he had the gall to ask his fellow council members to approve his proposal to jack up the individual contribution limit from $500 to $1,000.

His reasoning, as he explained during the council’s June 20 meeting, was that because Chico has grown so much—it now has more than 40,000 registered voters—grassroots campaigns are no longer feasible. Now candidates must rely on media to reach voters, and that’s much more expensive.

The parade of Chico residents, 29 altogether, who unanimously spoke against Morgan’s proposal could see what was going on. As Josh Indar told council members, “Where’s the justification for this? Nobody is going to tell you, ‘Hey, I think the problem with American politics is there’s not enough money in it.’”

The irony, of course, is that Morgan’s grotesque haul last year is the best argument against his proposal. Not only did Morgan raise $64,078, he also benefited from the $31,750 raised and spent on his behalf by a separate political action committee.

Morgan’s haul also shows that liberals are deluding themselves if they think reining in campaign donations levels the playing field by allowing more low- and middle-income candidates to compete with deep-pocketed conservatives. Even a middling campaign these days costs around $20,000, a figure that dissuades many qualified candidates from running.

There is a way to lessen money’s impact on City Council elections, however: Switch to voting districts. If Chico’s 40,000 voters were split into seven geographical districts, candidates would need to reach only about 6,000 voters in each district, which could be done inexpensively by going door to door.

This also would encourage minority candidates to run. Chico is becoming more and more racially and ethnically diverse, but the council remains staunchly white, upper middle class and middle aged. Keeping the campaign donation limit where it is won’t change that. Switching to districts—something cities up and down the state are doing—would be a good first step in making the council more representative.