New 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