June 28, 2013

“Do they think citizens are going to support financing these bogus or corrupt campaigns?” That question comes from Dorothy Brizill, co-founder of the government watchdog organization DC Watch, and has been repeated by other residents throughout the District. It comes as D.C. Council members Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and David Grosso (I-At Large) attempt to ramp up support for their Public Financing of Political Campaigns Amendment Act of 2013.

As introduced, the Grosso-McDuffie bill, which is roundly supported by most of their colleagues, would allow qualified candidates to tap a special public campaign fund after raising $5,000 in small contributions of $100 or less. After that, candidates could continue to receive a four-to-one match for donations throughout the campaign.

“It’s earmarks for politicians,” said Brizill.

In defending the bill, McDuffie, chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, said it would enhance democracy in the District by helping candidates who “don’t reach out to large donors” get elected. He has scheduled a public roundtable for July 11. “There will be a broad discussion about the topic,” not just the bill, he said.

Other jurisdictions, including Arizona, Maine and Connecticut, already have such public-financing laws. New Yorkers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), hoped to enact one this year, but the state legislature didn’t oblige.

Grosso, who has opted not to establish a traditional constituent services fund to prevent contractors and others from attempting to buy his influence, told me he would prefer a “purely public [financing] scheme for all elections,” completely eliminating private donations. But he knows the courts have slammed the door on that fantasy.

Mary Boyle, vice president for communications at Common Cause, a national good-government nonprofit, said public financing is the “way to go to end the corruption we see across the country.”

Quick survey: Which of these D.C.-politicos-turned-felons do you think would have been worthy of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars or dimes: Harry Thomas Jr., Michael A. Brown or Kwame Brown?

How about scandal-plagued council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) or Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) or Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D)?

None, right?

Over the past two years, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. has constructed a sturdy perp walk from the D.C. government and key political circles to the federal courthouse. Thus far, a half-dozen individuals have pleaded guilty to roles in an extensive illegal campaign financing scheme, which prosecutors allege was created and financed by local businessman Jeffrey Thompson. Thompson is the subject of a grand jury investigation and has not been charged.

This week Anthony C.Y. Cheng Sr., a restaurateur known for his frequent cash donations to political campaigns, and his son Anthony R. Cheng Jr. were indicted for allegedly attempting to bribe a government official to get taxicab licenses. The Chengs’ lawyer said they are innocent and will fight the charges.

Those who have followed D.C. politics know that behind the current cast of characters are friends and family members waiting for the opportunity to affect their own unethical or criminal hustles. Equally troubling, D.C. laws do not prohibit people such as Kwame Brown or Michael Brown from running for office after completing their sentences. Ironically, Michael Brown himself once advocated for public financing.

A public trough by any other name is still a public trough.

“I don’t think we should let any one thing any one council member has done keep us from doing things of merit,” argued McDuffie, who pledged to bring comprehensive campaign finance reform before the council for a vote by the fall.

“The system is broken in a lot of different ways,” said Grosso. But public financing “is a step leading to a cleaner process.”

Truth be told, though, the Grosso-McDuffie public-financing bill arrives at a pox-on-all-their-houses moment, it’s just not necessary. Any comprehensive campaign finance reform surely will restrict the size of donations while reducing the pool of donors. Further, candidates are not prohibited from voluntarily limiting the size of the donations they take now; they don’t need the government to goose them along. And, equally important, residents concerned about the influence of money in elections are always free to limit the amount of their contributions on their own.

Interestingly, McDuffie’s and Grosso’s elections make the case for why the use of tax dollars isn’t necessary to improve the process or the quality of candidates. Each campaigned on an anti-corruption platform; Grosso restricted the universe of his campaign donors. Both demonstrated commitment to community service. Residents came to believe in them and were willing to place their hopes in them.

Translation: Trust — not money, private or public — ultimately is what galvanizes citizens to become engaged in the political process.

jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com