Money for nothing
There’s $300,000 waiting for a few good candidates to take on City Hall. Why won’t anyone use it?
With Kevin Johnson “about 90 percent” likely to get into the mayor’s race, at least one City Hall contest could be competitive. But the mayor is just one vote out of nine on the Sacramento City Council.
The fact is, more than half of the council is up for re-election on June 3. Along with Mayor Heather Fargo, council members Sandy Sheedy, Rob Fong, Kevin McCarty and Bonnie Pannell are amassing campaign war chests for their races. And other than Fargo, not one of them, so far, has an opponent.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
In 2003, the city council, pushed and cajoled by groups like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, enacted a package of campaign-finance laws that were supposed to make local elections more competitive and take some of the money grubbing out of running for office.
A big piece of that reform package was a law that allowed candidates to receive public money, in the form of matching funds, in order to compete with the war-chests of candidates who took big donations from special interests like labor unions and developers. The idea is to support viable candidates, neighborhood activists and community leaders who can knock on doors and raise support but who wouldn’t otherwise be able (or wouldn’t want) to appeal to big donors to fund a major media campaign.
There is, right now, a community chest with $300,000 sitting in it, just waiting for the right candidates to use it in their elections campaigns against the incumbent council members.
When the law was passed, Jim Knox, then director of California Common Cause, told SN&R, “I think it’s going to reinvigorate grassroots politics. I think you are going to see more candidates running.”
But it didn’t work.
In the five years that have passed since public financing was enacted, exactly one candidate has taken advantage of the funds. And in that case, the city council got its collective undies in a twist about how the law was used—and moved to make it even harder for challengers to take on incumbents. More on that in a bit.
And it looks as if the money will just sit there unused this election as well. Many would-be candidates don’t know about the money. Others don’t think it’s all that helpful. And incumbents—who could use public financing as way to spend less time raising money and more time working on behalf of their constituents—won’t go near it.
Here’s how it works: In order to qualify for matching funds, a candidate must raise a certain amount of money to prove he or she is a viable candidate. That’s $7,500 for council races and $10,000 for the mayor’s race. If a candidate meets this threshold, the city will match, dollar for dollar, any campaign contributions raised. If you raise $10,000, you’ll get $10,000 free from the city. The city’s election kitty has about $300,000 in it, but that fund can grow if enough candidates qualify to use the money.
There are, of course, all kinds of restrictions and caveats. For example, any money raised before the end of the “nominating period” for that election (in this case, March 7) doesn’t count for matching funds. The city will only contribute a maximum of $32,000 to council candidates and $109,600 for mayoral candidates. And finally, if you accept public financing, you can only spend a maximum of $82,000 to run for council, $548,000 for a mayor’s race. None of these rules apply to candidates not using public money.
A good candidate for public financing is probably someone like Bruce Pomer, who briefly was in the race against City Councilman Steve Cohn in 2006. Pomer is well-known in Sacramento, served for years as head of the county’s Democratic Party Central Committee and has been elected to the Los Rios Community College Board of Trustees. Pomer said public financing was a big part of his strategy. “That’s how we were going to do it, for $60,000 or $70,000 we really could have run a decent campaign,” he said. But Pomer’s father-in-law became ill just as the campaign season got under way, and Pomer quit the race.
The one person who has used the ordinance, Craig DeLuz, said the ordinance doesn’t work like it is supposed to. DeLuz is a Republican and a community activist in north Sacramento. He currently serves on the Robla School District board.
Back in 2004, DeLuz ran against incumbent Sandy Sheedy in the council’s second district, which covers north Sacramento. He raised about $55,000, and ended up getting 36 percent of the vote. About $17,000 of that money came from public financing. But DeLuz was heavily criticized for how he spent the money. He bought an office rug ($100 for what he calls a carpet remnant) with campaign funds. He raised money from out-of-town friends. And he spent $700 in campaign money on airline tickets, which he used for fund-raising in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. None of these things were against the rules at the time, but several council members, his opponent Sheedy included, called them an abuse of public money.
Here’s the thing: Those same rules don’t apply to candidates who aren’t using public funds. During the same election, Sheedy also raised money from outside the district and from outside the state. Campaign-disclosure documents from that period show contributions from real-estate developers in Madison, Wis., and Phoenix, Ariz., to Sheedy’s campaign. Likewise, for candidates who don’t use public financing, there are no rules against spending money on office supplies nor against spending campaign money on travel.
The argument can be made—and has been made—that people using the public funds ought to be held to “a higher standard.” DeLuz and others argue back that if those rules are good enough for one candidate, they’re good enough for their better-funded opponents.
“If you’re not going to put the limits on all candidates, you shouldn’t put them on publicly financed candidates,” said DeLuz, who said the whole experience was frustrating. “I don’t think the goal of the city council was to create a level playing field. I think they just wanted to create the appearance of a level playing field.”
The city council has since closed the loopholes DeLuz was supposed to have exploited. And nobody has tried to use public financing since.
In such cities as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tuscon, Ariz., public financing is routinely used. And reform advocates say public financing has made elections in those places more competitive. What’s the difference?
It’s easy to assume it’s because Sacramento’s local political culture is different than those towns. But there’s probably a simpler explanation, said Bob Stern with the Center for Governmental Studies, a leading advocate for public financing and campaign reform. “It works best when there are open seats.”
In San Francisco and in Los Angeles, there are term limits for mayors and members of city councils. “Without term limits, you generally don’t have as much competition,” Stern noted.
Another problem may be that the spending limits are unrealistically low. “The problem with public financing isn’t that it isn’t a great idea. It’s that the dollar numbers are so low, that no serious contender wants to go there,” said Bob Waste, a Sacramento State public-policy professor who supports public financing.
The limits favor incumbents who spend months, years, raising money for their campaigns. And even when they have no opposition, incumbents keep on raising money.
That’s too bad, said Joanne Fuller, associate director of California Common Cause.
“With public financing, these candidates could really be focusing on representing their district, rather than dialing for dollars,” Fuller said.
Take McCarty, the District 6 council member who is up for re-election this year.
“I support public financing 100 percent,” McCarty told SN&R. And yet, he’s raised $130,000 for a race in which he has no competition, serious or otherwise. When asked why he doesn’t use public financing, keep to the campaign-contribution limits and ease up on the money raising, he explained, “I decided not to go that route. I want to be prepared.” The spending cap of $82,000, he said, “wouldn’t allow me to run a serious campaign.”
Fuller responded, “We’d be glad to work with the city council to revise the ordinance so that it would be more useful.” She thinks it might be time to double the matching funds or even triple it for candidates who abide by the public financing rules. Higher matches seem to be working well in places like New York City, Fuller noted.
Another thing that would help, said Waste, would be “a small- to medium-sized scandal” involving public officials. He thinks public financing could serve as a campaign tool for someone who wants to run as a reformer. “I think it will become more attractive to any candidate who wants to set themselves apart or who wants to set a little higher moral tone,” said Waste.
“Our political system has to mature a lot,” he added. “As soon as voters come to expect it, it will have to be used every election.”