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Campaign finance reform goes local

It’s a wet, chilly December morning in the nation’s capital, but the mood is upbeat in the Wilson Building, the seat of city government in Washington. D.C. Here council member David Grosso is about to unveil his latest campaign finance reform bill.

“I’m excited to be here this morning for this press conference,” he told a crowd of supporters. Grosso called the press conference to introduce what he calls fair elections legislation: a bill that would establish public financing for local candidates to counteract big money in city elections.

“For me this is about lifting up the voice of the everyday voter and making sure that individuals in the District of Columbia feel that they have the same power as the big corporations have,” he said.

Earlier, Grosso told me he modeled his legislation after a public financing law in Connecticut, and he noticed that Seattle voters passed a measure establishing publicly funded vouchers that voters can hand out to candidates. Maine voters updated their public financing system too.  Grosso said there is a common theme across it all.

“The Supreme Court has ruled; I think the Congress members aren’t doing much of anything at all, so they’re really kind of stuck," he said. "So, all these local jurisdictions are starting to say, 'Hey, we can try to tackle this on our own.'”

Nick Penniman wants to help those local jurisdictions. He heads a campaign finance reform group called Issue One.  He wants to help local lawmakers like Grosso introduce legislation on things like public financing of elections, ethics, and lobbying reform. His plan?  Develop boilerplate reform legislation for local politicians.  

“We want to be able to give them great models that they can pull off the shelf, slap their name on, file and begin fighting for reform at the state and local level,” he said.

There’s just one problem.   A few problems, actually, according to Richard Briffault.  He’s an expert on campaign finance law at Columbia University.  Voters can have mixed feelings about public financing of elections.

“I mean public funding has often been criticized as welfare for politicians," he said. "You get politicians saying the public’s money should go to schools or police, and not to campaigns. And that’s a popular stance.”

And then you have to get candidates to accept public money and the restrictions on private fundraising that usually come with it.  

“Public funding is not going to work, in the sense of becoming taken on by significant candidates, unless there’s a significant amount of money,” Briffault said.

Still, Briffault notes, it’s not a bad idea to pick your battles, and focus on cities and states where there’s an appetite for campaign finance reform.  For Nick Penniman of Issue One, his ultimate goal is national reform.

“What we’re trying to do is build momentum at the state level so that we can eventually surround Washington with victories and with energy that Washington won’t be able to bat away anymore,” he said.

Penniman said this is like the Gilded Age, the time around the turn of the 20th century when a hyperconcentration of wealth and political corruption led to major campaign finance reform. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. 

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