The influence of big corporate money in elections allowed by the US Supreme Court decision Citizens United is destroying our democracy. Political campaign fundraising and big money influence are warping our election process. Money spent becomes equated with the final vote. Money drives the message, affects voter turnout and ultimately the final outcome.
All too often, good, decent and qualified candidates do not run because they cannot raise the money. Public financing of candidates provides a glimmer of hope to stop the buying of elections by candidates and their wealthy donors.
2017 MAYOR’S RACE AND BALLOT INITIATIVES
All the reasons I ran for Mayor in 2013 still exist today, but things are worse: failed city hall leadership by the Mayor and City Council, failed civilian oversight and deterioration of the Albuquerque Police Department, higher violent crime rates, a declining and failing city economy and high unemployment rates.
When I ran for Mayor, I supported increasing the minimum wage, advocated for the working class, supported marriage equality and opposed the voter initiative placing restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.
With limited public financing, I could not get my message out against a well funded incumbent Mayor in a low voter turnout election who opposed marriage equality and who supported the voter initiative placing restrictions a woman’s right to choose.
There are additional hotly contested issues that will be emerging in the 2017 municipal election. The mandatory paid sick leave voter initiative and changes to Albuquerque’s public finance laws will be on the ballot. Both ballot initiatives will have strong, organized and very well financed opposition. No doubt the disastrous ART bus project destroying Route 66 will be hotly debated by candidates.
I have a strong desire to run for Mayor again in 2017 and if I do it will be as a privately financed candidate because the existing public financing available is inadequate.
Albuquerque’s public finance laws need to be overhauled. If I run, I will try to get the donations to run an effective campaign on the issues.
In 2017, as many as eight (8) candidates will be running for Mayor. One (1) candidate has said he intends to seek public financing and three (3) other candidates have said they will seek private financing, with one announced candidate already having raised over $40,000 dollars.
I predict the 2017 Mayor’s race will have the successful candidate spending at least $1 million dollars for the primary election and another $500,000 for the runoff, if there is one.
Historically, Albuquerque voters have shown a desire to place limits on campaign contributions for municipal elections. All reasonable attempts to curb the influence of big money in Albuquerque’s municipal elections have been struck down by the courts over the years.
When Albuquerque voters first enacted the City Charter, it provided that candidates for City Council and Mayor could only raise and spend the annual salaries of the position they were seeking. This system worked for a number of years until a candidate sued who wanted to spend $1 million dollars of his own money to run for Mayor and Albuquerque’s election spending caps were struck down by the Courts.
The New Mexico constitution provides that all municipal elections are non partisan. No party affiliation is given when candidate’s names appear on the ballot. The reality is, municipal elections are not non partisan, thanks in part to party loyalty, ideology and the news media, especially the Albuquerque Journal, always identifying candidate’s party affiliation, even after they are elected.
Albuquerque’s current election law provides that in order to get on the ballot for Mayor, you must collect approximately 3,600 qualifying signatures from registered voters. If one candidate does not get 50% plus one, a runoff is held between the two top vote getters.
Current public finance laws provide that a qualifying candidate gets only one lump sum for the entire election, now at approximately $360,000. Nothing in public finance is given for a run off placing public finance candidates at a disadvantage to privately financed candidates and incumbents.
In the 2009 Mayor’s race, all three candidates for Mayor, including the incumbent, qualified for public financing and there was a level playing field. The incumbent lost.
Incumbency does matter when it comes to raising money. Mayor Martin Chavez raised $1.2 million for one of his elections. Mayor Berry raised and spent over $900,000 for his reelection.
BEEN THERE, DONE THAT!
In 2013, I was very idealistic and naïve. I decided to run for Mayor as a publicly financed candidate thinking $360,000.00 would be enough financing, and I was wrong. I did not want to be beholding to anyone had I been elected.
In 2013, I was the only publicly financed Mayoral candidate, with Margaret Chavez Aragon and Paul Heh also attempting to collect the $5.00 qualifying contributions and their efforts failed.
Under Albuquerque’s existing public finance ordinance, once a candidate agrees to accept public financing, a candidate is prohibited from collecting any other donations and must agree to a spending limit. Mayor Berry decided not take public financing which allowed him to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money for his re election.
My campaign was given only 8 weeks to collect 3,600, qualifying $5.00 donations from Albuquerque residents and registered voters, which was a daunting and a very difficult task. Not surprising, Berry’s appointed City Clerk refused to set up a system to permit electronic transactions by donors, such as debit and credit cards, even though it was allowed by ordinance. The City Clerk required the campaign to collect cash and use paper receipt books and it is a system to set up failure.
Despite the limitations imposed, my campaign collected 5,000 qualifying donations when 3,600 were required. The $5 dollar donations have to come from registered voters, otherwise the donations do not count. Had the campaign failed to collect the minimum number of qualifying donations, all of what was collected would have been kept by the City.
Once my campaign accumulated the required number of $5.00 donations, we were actually given approximately $340,000.00 based on voter registration numbers of those eligible to vote based the last Mayoral election.
Being a privately financed candidate, Mayor Berry had no fundraising cap and no spending limit. Berry’s campaign was allowed to raise money from any one throughout the 10 month campaign, all the way to Election Day.
There was also Federal Court litigation relating to companies that do business with the City filed by Berry donors that struck down the City’s campaign finance law.
When you read Berry’s campaign finance reports, which are online, Berry actually raised $904,623 and in-kind contributions of $5,176 for a total of $909,799. For a supposedly non-partisan race, Berry’s 2013 contributors were extremely top heavy with major Republican donors and players and reads like a who’s who of big wealthy donors.
Berry donors included the Republican National Committee, oil and gas companies and Republican elected officials and Republican Party officials.
Mayor Berry’s margin of victory was roughly proportionate to the three to one margin he spent to get elected by the lowest municipal voter turnout since 1977, with only 19% of registered voters actually voting.
SUGGESTED CHANGES TO ALBUQUERQUE’S PUBLIC FINANCE LAWS
On the October, 2017 municipal ballot will be the proposed City Council changes to Albuquerque’s public finance law increasing the amount of public financing for Mayoral candidates from $360,000 to $640,000.
The proposed City Council increase in public financing will not apply to the 2017 Mayor’s race. 2017 Mayor Candidates will be running on the existing public finance restrictions.
The proposed City Council changes to Albuquerque’s public finance laws that will appear on the 2017 ballot are doomed for failure because of the affect of Citizens United.
However, the Albuquerque City Council still has time to make additional changes to the 2017 municipal ballot for future municipal elections, if they have the political backbone.
Following are recommendations for changes to the City’s public finance and election laws:
1. Allow four (4) months and two (2) weeks, from January 1 to May 15, to collected both the qualifying donations and petition signatures, and private campaign donation collection.
2. Allow the collection of the qualifying donations from anyone who wants, and not just residents or registered voters of Albuquerque. Privately finance candidates now can collect donations from anyone they want and anywhere in the State and Country.
3. Once the allowed number of qualifying donations is collected, the public financing would be made immediately available, but not allowed to be spent until starting May 15.
4. Permit campaign spending for both publicly financed and privately financed candidates only from May 15 to the October election day.
5. Return to candidates for their use in their campaign any qualifying donations the candidate has collected when the candidate fails to secure the required number of qualifying donations to get the public financing.
6. Mandate the City Clerk to issue debit card or credit card collection devices to collect the qualifying donations and to issue receipts and eliminate the mandatory use of “paper receipts”.
7. Increase from $1.00 to $2.50 per registered voter the amount of public financing, which will be approximately $900,000, and allow for incremental increases of 10% every election cycle keeping up with inflation.
8. Allow for additional matching public financing available for run offs at the rate of $1.25 per registered voter, or $450,000.
9. Albuquerque should make every effort to make municipal elections partisan elections by seeking a constitutional amendment from the legislature to be voted upon by the public.
Albuquerque’s public finance laws need major overhaul to be effective. Every effort should be made to make Albuquerque’s public financing laws for municipal elections to legally provide for a “dollar for dollar” match to privately raised funds by candidates, thereby providing a real level playing field. Otherwise I am afraid the failure of public financed campaigns will be the norm and not the rule.