Bowser had previously threatened not to fund the legislation, saying the money would be better spent on city services than on political campaigns. But as she signed the bill Tuesday, the mayor indicated that she had been convinced during recent public meetings that the program has widespread support.
“Over the past few weeks at budget engagement forums and community meetings across the District, residents have shown up to share their belief that the Fair Elections Act would strengthen our democracy,” Bowser said in a written statement. “I have heard them and I have been moved by their passion.”
The switch may help Bowser, who is seeking a second term, combat a perception that she hasn’t done enough to erase a “pay to play” culture in city government. A Washington Post poll last summer showed that District residents rated Bowser negatively concerning her efforts to curb the influence of wealthy political donors, with 48 percent saying she was doing a poor job while 31 percent said she was doing a good or excellent job.
The program will cost $3.8 million in 2020, the first year in which publicly financed elections would take place, increasing to $7.9 million in 2021. The District’s current annual budget is roughly $13.9 billion.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), one of the bill’s sponsors, praised the mayor’s about-face.
“I’m glad to see her sign the bill and glad to see her change her mind,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing that she listened not just to the council, but that she listened to the people.”
Allen said the law would engineer a “paradigm shift” in D.C. politics, which for decades has been marred by scandals involving political donors.
“It’s one way that we take big money out of politics. It’s one way that you take corporate contributions out of politics. And it’s a way that you help grass-roots candidates be able to be competitive and have their voice heard,” Allen said.
Monica Kamen, co-director of the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, said in a statement that the new law is “a huge step forward for the District and for our democracy. With officials truly elected by the people to serve the people, we can look forward to greater investments and attention paid to all of the pressing issues affecting District residents like housing security, economic justice, food access, healthcare, and community safety.”
A separate bill moving through the council’s judiciary committee — which Allen heads — would also limit campaign contributions by contractors who do business with the city.
Bowser administration officials have declined to take a position on such limits, saying the mayor would wait to see the final version of the legislation.
Advocates of election reform have lauded the District’s efforts to enact stronger ethics rules for campaigns — while also criticizing those efforts as belated.
Under Washington’s voluntary program, candidates who accept public financing must agree to smaller contribution limits for their donors. In exchange, they receive matching funds at a rate of $5 for every $1 raised from a District resident.
Depending on the office, candidates must also raise a threshold sum of money from a certain number of contributors to qualify for the program.
In a mayoral race, for example, a candidate would have to raise $40,000 from at least 1,000 small-dollar contributors before becoming eligible for public financing. The candidate’s donors would then have to abide by an individual contribution limit of $200, compared to the current $2,000 limit for mayoral races.
A qualifying mayoral candidate would also receive a $160,000 base grant.
The District now joins about 30 other jurisdictions — including Montgomery County, New York City and San Francisco — with a public campaign finance system, according to Demos, a left-leaning think tank.