Am I surprised that only three Colorado congressional candidates, just one of them a major party candidate, Democrat Bill Winters, have signed a Voters First pledge to clean up Congress-a pledge which commits candidates to supporting public financing of elections and lobbying reform?
I wish I could say that I am-but I’m a little too grizzled and hard-boiled for that. But I think they should, and I’ll explain why. And it’s not just because the pledge is the brainchild of Public Campaign Action Fund, aka, my day-job employer, along with two other watchdog groups, Common Cause and Public Citizen.
With pay-to-play scandals radiating from convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff touching an increasing number of members of Congress-the latest victim was Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney, who decided to plead guilty after months of revelations of his backroom dealings-it’s time to change the culture in Washington. And in the states too, which have their own share of money-and-politics scandals.
Full public financing of elections, also known as “Clean Elections” in many of the seven states and two municipalities that have approved it, changes the dynamic of how elections are run. Candidates collect an established number of small contributions-typically $5-from supporters. They then qualify for a public grant to run their campaigns, providing they also agree to take no more private money and abide by strict spending limits. If they are running against privately funded candidates who outspend them, they can qualify for additional public funding, up to a limit. The same goes if they are faced with outside advertising opposing them.
Clean Elections is not some far out, crazy idea. Arizona and Maine have run their statewide and legislative races with the program since 2000, and North Carolina started its public funding program for judicial races in 2004. Right now nearly 80 percent of the legislators in Maine and half in Arizona were elected using public funds. In North Carolina, since the program began, 20 out of 28 candidates in the general elections for seats on the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals have qualified for public funds.
Having access to public funding levels the playing field, so that candidates can run a competitive campaign without having to rely on big donors or having a lot of their own money to invest in a race. For example, in Maine, a waitress and single mother who was politically active in her community is now a state representative. In Arizona, a small business owner and former school teacher is now a state representative from Phoenix. Clean Elections states have seen an increase in competition and in the diversity of candidates running for office.
Getting back to Bill Winter. Right now, his race against Tancredo is described as the least likely for a Democratic win, as Colorado Confidant Andrew O’Willeke recently reported. There is no question that he would be able to mount a more competitive challenge to Rep. Tancredo if Clean Elections were in place.
Winter has raised only $350,450 to Tancredo’s $1.2 million. It’s always tough for a challenger to raise cash to compete against a well known incumbent who have tied to moneyed interests in Washington. Case in point: Tancredo has raised just about half of his large individual contributions in Colorado, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, while Winter has collected 90 percent of his contributions from Coloradans. But if Clean Elections were in place, and he qualified, Winter wouldn’t have to worry about dialing for dollars. He could instead devote more of his time talking to voters instead, finding out what their concerns and needs are.
It may seem obvious why Winter would benefit with public financing, as would the two minor party candidates who also signed the pledge–Frederic Eidsness, a Reform party candidate running in District 4, against Republican Marilyn Musgrave and Democrat Angela Paccione; and Dave Chandler, a Green candidate in Colorado’s most competitive race, District 07, where Rick O’Donnell faces off against Democrat Ed Perlmutter. But incumbents benefit too, because they also are freed from the dreaded money chase. We’ve seen this in Arizona and Maine, where the system is quite popular with incumbents.
To date, more than 300 congressional candidates have signed the Voters First Pledge, the three watchdog groups announced today. But it’s not too late–Colorado’s congressional candidates can still sign on. And I should add that Colorado’s current delegation should sign onto the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act, HR 3099, which would establish full public financing of elections for House candidates. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon.
Sure political scandals make for sexy news. But we don’t need to rely on politics for scandal-we have folks like Paris Hilton and Pete Rose for that. We could use fewer stories about lobbyist-funded lawmakers inserting provisions for clients in bills here and taking trips to Scotland there, and more about lawmakers debating health care, the environment, and pocketbook issues. You know, the stuff that really affects people in their daily lives.