Tonight, the Oakland Public Ethics Commission will hold a special meeting about local campaign contribution and expenditure limits.
Campaign contribution and expenditure limits in Oakland
In short, the City Attorney has proposed that the existing Oakland campaign contribution and expenditure limits be doubled (PDF). The way it works right now is that you can either spend as much money as you want, but only take $100 donations, or you can agree to voluntarily spending limits and accept donations of up to $700 from individuals. Basically everyone takes the spending limits. Currently, the spending limit for the Mayoral race is $379,000.
Campaign contribution limits are by no means unique to Oakland. They exist at in State and Federal races, and many other cities have decided to impose contribution limits in their local races as well. An attachment to the report on this issue to the Ethics Commission lists the existing limits in other California cities (PDF), as does Jean Quan in her blog and newsletter. (Quan’s “comparative” list, BTW, conveniently only lists the cities that have lower limits than Oakland and omits those that have higher ones, like Santa Ana ($1,000), Anaheim ($1,700), Fresno ($3,600), and Sacramento ($3,000), Glendale ($1,000), as well as those that have no limits, like Bakersfield, Riverside, Stockton, Modesto, and San Bernadino.)
Why would we raise the limit?
Under our old election system, these limits applied separately in both the primary and general elections. That is, if you gave someone the maximum donation for their primary campaign, and the race happened to go into a runoff (as was the case with the 2008 At-large City Council election), you could give them the maximum donation again for their runoff campaign. This was because there were two elections, even though it was only for one office.
Now that we’re doing Ranked Choice Voting, we will no longer have two (or the potential for two) elections for municipal offices, only a single election in November. The City Attorney reasons (PDF) that since there will now only be one election where there used to be two, that single election should have the same total limits as used to exist for both elections combined. Additionally, the City Attorney argues that the extra money will allow candidates to educate voters about Ranked Choice Voting, which will be new to them in November.
Why wouldn’t we raise the limit?
Ethics Commission staff does not agree with this rationale (PDF), and notes that most local elections do not go to a runoff. The report further notes that it is the County, not individual candidates, that bears the responsibility of educating residents about the new voting system.
Another attachment to the staff report features 22 letters received about the proposal (PDF). One is in favor and 21 are against. Here is a sampling of what the letter writers have to say:
Is American turning into a country where only the rich can run for office and get elected? Are we turning into Great Britain before the American Revolution or France before the French Revolution? American was founded on the premise that anyone could run for office and become a representative of the people. With the rise of campaign donation limits it is obvious that only special interest will have great influence in who gets elected. This is a travesty of the American political system and it should be halted.
I strongly oppose this. Lower limits help us stay more honest and make it more likely that the election is actually based on issues and qualifications. And the availability of extra funds to make higher donations to a campaign suggests to me that unethically high prices have been charged for services or products somewhere. Wouldn’t we all rather make our own decision about who (and what) to contribute our hard-earned money to than to have it made for us by Microsoft, or Sun, or Mechanics Bank, or an insurance company?
These should be REDUCED NOT INCREASED. What are they thinking
Being that I had a long term interest in Oakland, in a large part for its key value in keeping the wheels of commerce in the Bay Area running as best as possible for the benefit of the entire Bay Area as the key shipping port for Central and Northern California. Preamble: I beg your indulgence to describe two Campaign Finance options. Preamble: Presidential Candidate Obama once supported construction of a transcontinental high speed Freight-Only railway for common use of all rail lines. Given the absolute need to avoid, or duplicate, same-level road crossings (they kill over 300 a year), very costly tunnels and bridges, to keep the rails level and the new ability to optimize paths using the latest airplane and satellite GPS data and computer technology. It is my opinion that this project will be done, as soon as possible, possibly to put people back to work, all across the nation.
Option A. Make a new Finance Office of the Ethics Commission the recipient of all donation above some limit, for example, a Private Business could give X00s Dollars to one, or more Council Members up to the new allowed limit that you will set. And, the same donor may contribute YOOs Dollars to the new Ethics Commission Finance Office, without any limits, to be evenly divided among current Council Members running for re-election….
I guess the last one should get some credit for thinking outside of the box?
Basically, all the objections are premised on the idea that we need to keep money out of elections in order to preserve a level playing field and that low contribution limits accomplish that.
Why it doesn’t matter
So here’s the thing about money. There are always going to be people who have a lot of money. And here’s the thing about money and politics. Some of those people are always going to want to spend their piles of money to influence elections. And they are going to find a way to do it, no matter what you try to do to stop it. You just can’t. I’m sorry. But you can’t. And if you think that you’re going to keep money out of elections by imposing strict contribution limits, well, you’re delusional.
We have watched this play out on the State level, where individual contributions to a candidate are limited but independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate are not (so long as these expenditures are not coordinated with the campaign). We will soon watch it play out across the Country.
The result of contribution limits is not to reduce the amount of money spent on elections. Far from it. All that happens is a shift in where money gets spent. The candidate’s campaign becomes less important and the independent expenditures become more so. If you tell people who have lot of money to spend and want to spend it that they can’t give it to a candidate’s campaign, they will find another way to spend it to further their purposes. Sometimes these efforts may be inept and counterproductive, like those ridiculous and terrifying SAFE neighborhoods NOW signs that Oakland Jobs PAC plastered all over town to promote Kerry Hamill’s City Council campaign in 2008, or the “homocide” mailer, also promoting Kerry Hamill and also courtesy of Oakland Jobs PAC in 2008, or that horrifying chalk body outline mailer OakPAC sent out bashing Nancy Nadel the same year. But whether or not these expenditures effectively communicate their message is besides the point. It’s still money.
What you can do about it
So how do you combat the influence of people who have lots of money? Well, you give your own.
I don’t make a lot of money by any stretch of the imagination. $700 is a huge amount to me, and I’m not the sort of person who can just whip out the checkbook and drop seven hundred, or hell, even a hundred dollars without feeling it. But I maxed out my contributions to one local campaign last election cycle and I can say without a moment of hesitation that I would have given more if I had been allowed to. And I intend to do so again in 2010. Knowing that elections were on the way, I have spent the last year and a half slowly putting some money from every single paycheck away into a little personal donation pool so that I will have the ability to help the candidates who I want to see win.
I completely realize I’m way more invested in these things than the average person, and I obviously don’t expect every struggling Oaklander to save up for eighteen months so they can make hefty contributions to local campaigns. My point is simply that if you really want to give, you can do it, even if your means are limited.
So that’s my advice. Whatever happens with the Ethics Commission tonight and perhaps ultimately the City Council with respect to contribution limits, there’s going to be a ton of money in the Mayoral race. You can’t stop that. I’m sorry, I wish that weren’t the case, but it just is. You don’t like it? Too bad, you can’t change it. You want to do something about it? Give.
I remember vividly a message I received from someone working on a local campaign a few years ago after I had made my second donation. I had previously given the candidate $50, and then like a month or so later, as the election was drawing closer, I starting feeling really bad about the long odds they were up against, so I coughed up (not without difficulty) another $50. Within minutes, I got the following e-mail:
on behalf of the [redacted] campaign, I wish you would stop contributing money. For gosh sakes, we have people in [super rich neighborhood] living in 3 million dollar homes who only contribute $25 or take a sign.
That was just so sad to me. People in Oakland complain and complain and complain all the time about how frustrated they are with their entrenched, dysfunctional government, yet they don’t seem to be willing to do what it takes to change it. You want new leadership? Newsflash: campaigns cost money. Mailers are expensive. Door hangers are expensive. Walk pieces are expensive. Office space is expensive. It takes money to run. It just does. You can hate it all you want. I hate it. But hating it doesn’t change anything and neither does whining.
I’m not saying everyone needs to run around giving everybody the max or even close to it. And I’m not going to tell you who you should give to. But if you care about these things (and I assume you do if you’re reading this blog), and you find a candidate you sincerely want to see be the Mayor or City Councilmember or on the School Board or BART Board or Peralta Board or whatever, write them a check. If you want to reduce the influence of other people’s money, the way to do it is to dilute the importance of their money.
And whatever your first inclination is for an amount to donate, pause for a second and think about whether or not you can afford to give more. How much does who is running your city matter to you? How much do you want this person to win? What can you sacrifice to allow yourself to give a little bit more? One dinner out? Two? Ten? Think about it. Figure out what you can afford. Yeah, writing that check, in whatever amount you settle on, is going to hurt you a lot more than it hurts Daddy Warbucks or whoever. But that’s just life. Deal with it.
The Public Ethics Commission will meet to discuss the proposal (PDF) at 6:30 PM tonight in Oakland City Hall Hearing Room 1.