Nothing will make one more aware of campaign financing than running for office. The incumbent alderman is flush with cash as the chair of the zoning board and facilitator of polluting industry. A community organization appears to be running a PR campaign for a competing polluting industry in the neighborhood for campaign resources for their candidate, there are two is a union candidate, a banker, and the socialist party/parties are making this race a priority as well. You can bet that with each of these pots of money comes an agenda. This agenda can sometimes be in line with the interests of our diverse ward and sometimes go against our interests. Regardless, whoever gets elected will be obligated to push the agenda of their past and future campaign financiers.
Campaign Financing and Institutional Corruption
Over the previous 5 weeks I’ve been taking a weekly break from the campaign and getting some exercise by biking down to Hyde Park to see one of my favorite “egghead professors” talk about institutional corruption. What this professor calls institutional corruption, I’ve been calling legalized corruption. It’s not graft or bribery, it’s campaign contributions and gerrymandering with a wink and a nod and it’s all perfectly legal. At the last talk some solutions were proposed. One of those proposed solutions was public financing of elections.
I’ve been mistakenly dismissing campaign finance reform as a national issue. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision has made it a requirement that we have a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics. But we don’t need to get money out of politics, we just need the money in politics to be representative of the voters! Moreover, we have an existing model that has been working for 25 years in NYC! From Wikipedia:
The New York City Campaign Finance Board is an independent, nonpartisan agency of the City of New York. It was created in 1988 in the wake of several political corruption scandals. It gives public matching funds to qualifying candidates, who in exchange submit to strict contribution and spending limits and a full audit of their finances. Citywide candidates in the program are required to take part in debates. Corporate contributions are banned and political action committees must register with the city.
Here are some quick stats from their website:
More than two-thirds of the total amount of individual contributions collected by participating candidates came from residents of New York City.
More than two-thirds of all New York City contributors gave $175 or less.
More than 90 percent of the total raised came from individual contributors, not PACs or unions.
In short, this is something we can do in Chicago too! New York City’s Campaign Finance Board provides $1/$6 matching; you donate $1, the city matches it with $6. Doing some quick math I was able to estimate the costs of having Chicago do public financing of campaigns. This year we have an unusually large class of candidates running for aldlerman, 250+. At approximately $50k - $250k (let’s say an average of $100k) per candidate, the City of Chicago would need $21m every election to pay for a functioning, representative government. The government is representative because it requires the candidate to raise only 1/7th of the total money; $14k instead of $100k.
Some will look at this number and think to themselves what the Chairman of the NYC Finance Committee Mike DeMarco actually said out loud on the floor of the city council: “We can not afford good government now!” To put $21m in perspective, that’s $5.25m per year, or less than 1/10 of 1% of the city’s revenue [pdf] and less than the amount of TIF money contributed to a single Mariano’s store. In 2013, New York City spent only $16m on the program. [pdf]
Given that our city is constantly “in the wake of several political corruption scandals”, it’s time we do something about it. As Peter Vallone says, “We can not afford not to have a good government now!”