Sunday Commentary: Raising Campaign Limits is Unnecessary, Bad Idea

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campaign-financeNew staff can often be forgiven for making proposed changes when they lack the context by which the status quo was created, or lack the context of the storm they may produce by proposing the changes.  However, the staff members who prepared the recommendation that the city increase contribution limits were on staff in 2007 when the idea came up last and should have been aware of the public reaction.

The staff recommendation makes reasonable points, “The current campaign contribution limit of $100 was established in 1991. Prior to that, a $25 contribution limit was adopted in 1975. Since the last increase in 1991, other factors have also changed in the community.”

They note: “There has been a significant increase in the cost to run an election campaign since 1991. The population has increased by approximately 20,000 residents, close to a 50% increase. Not even considering increases to the cost of postage, paper or other goods of that sort, since 1991, campaigns have become much more diverse in their communication methods.

They add: “They now utilize campaign websites, text messaging, media advertising, etc. Each new technology that presents an opportunity for communication also comes with a price tag that was not anticipated in 1991.”

Staff also points out that Davis has the lowest campaign limitation in the region and that most jurisdictions either have no limit or a much higher limit than Davis.

All of these are good points and lead to the recommendation: “Davis has a limit in place as one check against enabling any individual to have an undue influence on a campaign. Staff believes maintaining a limit of some amount embodies the spirit in which Davis campaigns have been run, however, for the reasons mentioned above, staff also suggests Council consider establishing a contribution limit over $100.”

They do not propose a level, they simply suggest that if the council chooses to raise the limit, staff would return with an ordinance to implement the change.

It seems reasonable – I just happen to disagree.

First, I know firsthand how difficult the $100 campaign limit is for candidates.  There is nothing worse than having to raise money in substantial quantities, $100 at a time.  We ended up having to supplement what my wife raised with loans that put us into debt and at times took money directly from living expenses to the point that, for a period of a few weeks, we were literally on a beans and rice diet, because all other money had been diverted to the campaign.

So I know this is onerous from a very personal experience, but here is why I think it needs to remain at the current level.

First, for the campaign cycle that Cecilia campaigned in, Don Saylor raised about $75,000 and Souza was around $60,000 or so.  But since then, the cost of campaigning went down – way down.  The two subsequent campaigns saw most people raising between $10,000 and $30,000.

With social media, text messaging, email, the web, free campaign coverage in the Enterprise and Vanguard, and good old grassroots precinct walking, people can really win a campaign spending less than $20,000.

If we raised the campaign finance limitations, that number would increase.  Most people are not going to be able give more than $100 anyway, but by keeping the playing field low and level, you allow the typical citizen that can give $100 or $200 as a couple (occasionally $400 with adult children) to compete with wealthy business people and developers.

Yes, the firefighters were able to exploit and subvert that process by bundling 30 to 40 members’ $100 contributions in a $4000 package, but raising the limit might not stop that, it might make it more profound.

Several candidates in the past remarked that the need to raise money in $100 increments means that winning campaigns have to raise money broadly, rather than from people with deep pockets.

The $100 campaign limitation means that we can still have grassroots candidates.  Honestly, were it not for the fact that money unfortunately signals seriousness of the candidate, I believe someone could win election spending virtually no money and relying strictly on cheaply produced fliers and social media.

During the 2007 debate, Richard Livingston remarked, “Increasing the donation limit is not free speech in reality, it is buying an election. We must have public funding to level the playing field. Politics should not be determined by advertising money.”

He continued, “That is the current problem. Of course those who support the wealthy prefer the advantage. The rest of us have to wake up to the fact that a process that ensures equal access to the public will give all candidates an even hearing.”

Rich Rifkin also backed public funding of campaigns.

He wrote, “The core problem is corruption and the appearance of corruption.”

“Most of the people who are giving most of the money to candidates have some kind of financial stake in the outcome. They might be real estate developers who want a favorable ear on their projects. They might be teachers in a school board election who want higher salaries or bigger benefits. They might be contractors who sell supplies to the city or county. Or they might be landscaping firms which maintain public properties,” he continued.

He would add, “Every time a candidate for public office accepts money from anyone who does business with the government, it has the appearance of corruption. The only way to rid ourselves of that stink is to have publicly financed campaigns.”

In 2010, Joe Krovoza avoided that problem by refusing money from those with a stake in the process.  He led the way on campaign financing that cycle with $28,000 and finished first, but his total bankroll was about one-third of that of Don Saylor from 2008.

In 2012, Lucas Frerichs finished first in fundraising at just over $30,000 and finished second in the race.  Dan Wolk was first in the race and a close second in fundraising.  Brett Lee would raise just over $20,000 and finished third.  And lagging behind were Sue Greenwald and Stephen Souza, at around $16,000 or so, finishing fourth and fifth respectively.

But the bottom line here is that for $30,000 or less, a candidate could get elected to public office and they can be competitive at half that.

We get competitive elections in Davis for a low amount of money.  We still have grassroots campaigns and have no need for expensive mail or media campaigns, given the interest and the amount of free media opportunities.

Council needs to keep the limitations in place.  If the system is not broken, why fix it?

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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26 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Raising Campaign Limits is Unnecessary, Bad Idea”

  1. medwoman

    I have a question for anyone who may know. Where did the numerical amount of the campaign contribution limit whether $100.00 or
    $250.00 come from ? Was it based on some median income, net worth , or average amount of money spent on a campaign ?
    Was it drawn from a rhetorical hat ?

  2. itsme

    Thank you for this news.

    Haven’t we seen enough sell outs to moneyed interests in DC? Do we want local politicians vying for who can serve the rich better?

    Now, how about identifying the “staff” who would raise campaign contribution limits? Protecting their identities is a disservice to the public.

  3. Mr.Toad

    Its not like the Koch brothers are dropping millions in without identifying themselves. I think we should index the amount to inflation same as we should for the minimum wage. $100 in 1991 is worth an inflation adjusted $171 today. This is not a big deal.

  4. Davis Progressive

    the first question you have to ask: is there a reason that the current limitation is not working? my response: no. so i agree with greenwald, if it’s not broke, why fix it?

    “Its not like the Koch brothers are dropping millions in without identifying themselves.”

    and that ends the pernicious nature? really?

  5. JustSaying

    medwoman, here are the limits listed in the staff report: Davis $100, Folsom $150, West Sacramento $250, Roseville $500, Sacramento $1,600. It notes there are no limits in Elk Grove, Rancho Cordova, Rocklin, Citrus Heights, Vacaville, Winters and Woodland.

    Clearly, Davis falls into the “quaint” category. And, in direct response to your question, it does appear that the amounts are pulled our of someone’s rear.

    David’s 2010-2012 figures document a direct correlation between the amount of campaign donations received and the outcomes of the elections.

  6. Davis Progressive

    “David’s 2010-2012 figures document a direct correlation between the amount of campaign donations received and the outcomes of the elections.”

    but they don’t prove direction of causation. does someone win because they raise more money or do they raise more money because they are perceived as more likely to win?

  7. Don Shor

    [quote]Honestly, were it not for the fact that money unfortunately signals seriousness of the candidate, I believe someone could win election spending virtually no money and relying strictly on cheaply produced fliers and social media.[/quote]
    Julie Partansky.

  8. JustSaying

    Good questions, DP.

    And, what difference would a $250 or $500 limit make in the scheme of things? It would allow candidates to generate the funding they need for a viable run (and heir Vanguard advertising) much faster. Full and prompt disclosure is the most important rule, in my view.

  9. Don Shor

    No, my conclusion is that there is no need to increase the limits. A good candidate can run without higher contributions.
    Who directed staff to even visit this issue?

  10. Davis Progressive

    js: it would also increase the amount of money spent in raises several fold, reduce the chance of grassroots candidates, increase the number of developer/ firefighter beholden candidates.

  11. B. Nice

    “Raising the limit reduces the number of supporters to whom candidates must pay attention.”

    I ideally they would be paying attention to people in order to gain their vote, not their money.

  12. Jim Frame

    Ideally they would be paying attention to people in order to effectively represent them, not merely to gain their vote. My comment was in reference to the real world.

  13. B. Nice

    “Ideally they would be paying attention to people in order to effectively represent them, not merely to gain their vote.”

    Ideally this would be the same thing.

    “My comment was in reference to the real world.”

    Which is why I think we need campaign finance reform.

  14. Mr.Toad

    Davis has a bigger problem with unlimited amounts being spent on local ballot measures. As an example, Mike Harrington spent thousands on signature gathering signatures more, by the way, than the firefighters gave Don Saylor. Harrington also failed to disclose what he spent until sometime after the signatures were gathered. On the other side Alan Pryor donated thousands to yes on I. Whether or not we can give $100 or $200 or $500 is less important people giving thousands to buy a place on the ballot. The amount of money Harrington’s current lawsuit will cost the city in higher interest rates in direct opposition to the expressed will of the voters of Davis is a much larger scandal.

  15. Davis Progressive

    i don’t disagree with your peripheral points, but this is not about a scandal, it’s about changing a system that’s for the most part actually working as it was designed to.

  16. Mr.Toad

    The question is whether raising the amount modestly will improve things or make them worse. It will probably make them better because viable candidates won’t need to work so hard raising the money to pay for all those non-recyclable plastic lawn signs that make their way to the North Pacific Gyre.

    Another bigger scandal, not annexing west Village, thereby disenfranchising thousands of students from Davis elections. You want to talk about a system that allows the voices of the people to be heard, that is a much bigger problem than drowning out the voices of the people with money bundled in $200 donations.

  17. Jim Frame

    [quote]The question is whether raising the amount modestly will improve things or make them worse. It will probably make them better because viable candidates won’t need to work so hard raising the money[/quote]

    It wouldn’t confer any relative advantage between candidates; all it would do is move the bar higher so that those less able to contribute would be priced out of the market, raising the price of campaigns at the expense of lower-income voters. Mitt and ilk would love it!

  18. Mr.Toad

    “Mitt and ilk would love it!”

    A little hyperbole wouldn’t you say. if you really believe the bar to entry would get too high going to district instead of at large elections would be much more effective at reducing the cost of running.

  19. Jim Frame

    District elections is a whole different subject, with its own set of benefits and liabilities. My remarks pertain to the staff recommendation to raise contribution limits.

  20. shamusd

    If we are going to limit the campaign contributions of individuals running for public office we should also cap the costs of a Measure J/R project that wants to go on the ballot. Would it be fair if the city charged you $250,000.00 to get to compete in a city council election, not to win just to get on the ballot? Only the ultra wealthy would run for City Council if this was the case, same is true for Measure J/R.

    Get rid of the caps and let the richest compete, the voters have the ultimate say right?

    Matt, tongue is usually firmly in cheek.

    Best,

    Jim Donovan

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