A bill designed to increase the power of small donors in local politics and open the field to candidates who aren’t backed by big campaign contributors gained support from the public at a D.C. Council committee hearing Thursday.
The Fair Elections Act would allow qualified local candidates to opt into a program in which they would forgo large campaign donations in exchange for an initial grant from the city as well as a 5-to-1 match on smaller donations.
More than 70 people — from residents to representatives from organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Sierra Club — spoke in support of the bill at the hearing, which ran for more than seven hours.
“An individual who believes in a candidate should know their $5 is going to matter,” said Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, which held the hearing. “We also want to make sure that candidates don’t have to spend their time locked in a windowless room calling rich voters and are really engaging with their communities.”
Speakers repeatedly noted that donors supporting local candidates do not reflect city demographics.
White residents make up 37 percent of the District’s population, but they represented more than two-thirds of donors to D.C. Council candidates between 2012 and March 2016, according to a report by the liberal think tank Demos. And while just a quarter of District residents earn more than $100,000, residents in that income bracket represented more than 60 percent of campaign donors, according to the report.
The voluntary Fair Elections Program — which would be in place for the 2020 elections if passed by the D.C. Council — would be available for candidates up and down the city ballot. The 5-to-1 matching program would mean a $50 contribution would be matched with $250 for an effective donation of $300.
The Fair Election Program would cost taxpayers $5 million per year — a tiny fraction of the city’s $13.8 billion budget. It would be run by the Office of Campaign Finance.
Last year, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — who is heading into her 2018 reelection campaign — opposed measures to limit the influence of big donors in campaign fundraising on the grounds they might contradict the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United, in which the court ruled the government cannot restrict independent political expenditures by companies, nonprofit groups, unions or associations.
Former mayor and current D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) said in January that he would support fundraising restrictions. But Gray, who is a possible contender in the 2018 mayoral race, is not co-sponsoring the Fair Elections Act.
Nine of the council’s 13 members are listed as sponsors, including Allen, David Grosso (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8). Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) has signed on as a co-sponsor.
Both Bowser and Gray have been accused of pay-to-play politics. Shortly after her election in 2014, Bowser’s allies created a political action committee to advance her agenda that accepted contributions from individuals and companies seeking contracts with the city; the PAC was shut down amid criticism. Gray’s 2014 reelection bid was overshadowed by allegations that a disgraced city contractor ran a $653,000 shadow campaign to support Gray, spurring a federal investigation and guilty pleas by six people, including some Gray associates. Gray was not charged, and he has consistently said he was not aware of the illegal activity.
Neither Bowser nor Gray responded to requests for comment on the Fair Elections Act.
Attorney General Karl A. Racine, who is a possible long-shot contender in the 2018 mayoral matchup, has been a vocal advocate for curbing the influence of donors on government. Racine did not respond to a request for comment.
To be eligible for the program, mayoral candidates would agree not to accept donations greater than $200. Candidates for attorney general or chairman of the council would have a cap of $150. At-large council members would face a cap of $100, candidates for ward council and the at-large seats on the board of education would have a cap of $50, and candidates for the ward seats on the board of education would have a cap of $20.
Dexter Williams, 29, who chairs the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition for Ward 7, said public financing of local elections is particularly important for residents east of the Anacostia River.
Politicians ultimately answer to the people who have the money to put them in office, and many in Ward 7 — which has a 10 percent unemployment rate — do not have the funds to compete with wealthy donors and big developers for political sway, Williams said.
The Fair Elections Act could give more political influence to residents in Wards 7 and 8 who feel “left behind” by current policies, Williams said.
“People in our ward feel like our voices are never heard and that we are the last ones to get our fair share,” Williams said. “A program like this will amplify our voices and give us the influence we need to demand policymaking that reflects the needs of everyday people.”
In Maryland, Montgomery County launched a public financing program for candidates this year, and lawmakers in Howard County are scheduled to consider a vote Monday on whether to override the recent veto by County Executive Alan Kittleman (R) of a similar bill.
Qualified contestants in contested races in the District would also be eligible to receive a base amount of money to launch their campaigns. Candidates for mayor would receive $160,000. Candidates for council chairman, council member and the office of attorney general would receive $40,000. Candidates for the state election board office would receive $10,000.
To qualify for the matching program and the initial grant, mayoral candidates would be required to collect 1,000 contributions from District residents totaling $40,000. Candidates for attorney general and council chairman would need 500 contributions from D.C. residents totaling $20,000. Candidates for at-large council member would need 300 contributions totaling $12,000, while those seeking ward council seats would need 100 contributions totaling $2,000. At-large school board candidates would have to have 100 contributions from D.C. residents totaling $2,000, and ward school board candidates would be required to collect 50 contributions totaling at least $1,000.