Federal prosecutors have turned time and again to a favorite phrase as they’ve battled D.C. political corruption — “pay-to-play politics” — and for the past several years now, elected officials and candidates have floated various solutions to the pay-to-play problem.
Provide better oversight? Eliminate corporate contributions? Implement a public financing system? All of those have been floated, but no candidate or official has gone quite so far as D.C. Council candidate Robert White, who is seeking an at-large seat as an independent.
In a manifesto posted to his Web site last week, White made a call for “clean elections” that included this novel proposal: “We should not only eliminate corporate contributions. We should also eliminate all private contributions.” In other words, no person or business would be allowed to contribute to political campaigns; under White’s proposal, public financing issued through a taxpayer-supported program would be the only permissible way to finance a campaign for D.C. government office.
That, White said in an interview Monday, is the only way to truly make the playing field level. Banning only corporate contributions, he said, would disadvantage candidates from low-income backgrounds — predominantly minorities, he pointed out — who have less cash to draw out in their network of friends and families.
“If we believe that private donations yield unfair advantage, then we have to accept that applies to both individuals and businesses,” he said. “Refusing to accept donations from businesses … that’s only optical ethics, because it does not get at the issue of pay-to-play politics.”
That’s a shot at one prevailing school of campaign finance reform — one adhered to by fellow at-large candidate Elissa Silverman, who helped lead an unsuccessful attempt to ban corporate contributions to local campaigns and has eschewed business donations in her two council campaigns.
“I think you’ve got to walk the walk,” Silverman said Tuesday. “Every single donor for me this year has a name and an address. That’s not true for many of my opponents.”
White, a 32-year-old former aide to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), has not had much problem raising funds so far. His latest filings with campaign finance authorities show total receipts of nearly $75,000 with more than two-thirds of that left in the bank. The great majority of White’s contributions have come from individuals, though he has reported $7,950 in contributions from businesses and political action committees — including the firms of John A. Wilson Building lobbyists Kerry Pearson, Warner Session and David Wilmot. White’s also picked up the only endorsements thus far from sitting council members, counting Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and, as of Tuesday, Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) in his camp.
“We have done well, but everything can’t be done in self-interest,” White said. “I’m looking for a system that works for everybody, not just one that works for me.”
So far, the D.C. Council has shied away from establishing any sort of public financing mechanism. The spate of recent corruption, perhaps ironically, has undermined confidence that taxpayer funds funneled into election campaigns would be well spent. White’s proposal is based on “Clean Elections” programs established most prominently in Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, where candidates seeking public financing first gather a specified number of $5 “seed” contributions, then pledge to use only public funds thereafter.
Silverman said she’s open to a New York City-style public financing system, where campaigns can seek a public match for small donations while still accepting private money. Banning corporate contributions, she said, remains the simplest solution to a lack of transparency in campaign donations: “We need the policing to be simple and elegant and transparent, and I think banning corporate contributions does that.”
Candidates in Clean Elections states are free to pass on public financing and instead engage in traditional private financing, but White said he wants to pursue an even more stringent regime. “In a perfect world, there would be a hard cap whether you took private contributions or public financing, so that everyone had an equal playing field and campaigns would be based on ideas and experience,” he said. “I’m going to work to get as close to that as possible.”
White’s manifesto makes no mention of how to account for the costs of such a system, which could be in the millions in a mayoral election year. And the biggest obstacle might be nearly 40 years’ worth of Supreme Court precedent establishing political contributions as constitutionally protected speech. “Clean Elections” states make public financing optional, in large part, to comport with legal precedent.
White said he’s mindful of the jurisprudential obstacles but said he’s hopeful that one day Buckley v. Valeo might join Plessy v. Ferguson and Dred Scott v. Sandford in the dustbin: “The Supreme Court, in many circumstances, has years later come to a very different conclusions.”