Your Tax Dollars at (Political) War
Albuquerque now one of few in the nation that pays candidates to run campaigns. Will it work?
In a climate of growing distrust for government on both federal and local levels, as campaign war chests swell every year, citizens know representatives have to get their coinage from somewhere. It's when those gold coins translate to political currency that things get sticky. The question many are asking or, more depressing, may have stopped asking: Who can run for office anymore? Only an elite few? And if they get elected, whose change is jingling in their pockets?
There's something different about this year's City Council race. It's the first time in Albuquerque history that candidates had the option of running their campaigns with public money, notably called "taxpayer dollars" by the program's adversaries. Once certain criteria are met, each candidate gets $1 per registered voter in their district. All of that dough comes from the city; from you.
"Experiment" is an apt word for the new process. Not even the candidates using public funds are totally comfortable with the rules yet, and many say there are, at the very least, a few kinks that need to be hammered out. But whether this trial run proves successful, Albuquerque can be proud of being one of five places in the United States to implement public financing. It’s the city's attempt to allow anyone with enough motivation—not just enough money—to run for office.
Arizona and Maine had the procedure in place since 2000 for all state and legislative elections. Connecticut, Portland and Albuquerque passed a clean elections law in 2005. Cathryn McGill runs one of the first local Council campaigns ever to use public funding. "I would love to see it in all levels of government," she says. "If we look at what's going on in the federal level with how much money you have to raise to run for office ... Anybody who has the right qualifications should be able to run. Money is the bigger part of the equation right now."
We've seen campaign headquarters on TV: busy office environments, phones ringing, harried volunteers speaking quickly into receivers with red-white-and-blue posters on the walls sloganed "Vote So-And-So."
That's not reality for Tomás Garduño. He sits in a T-shirt and khaki shorts at his father Rey's dining room table. It’s stacked chaotically with papers, registered voter lists, notepads, a basket of pens. On the wall next to an adjoining kitchen is a map of District 6, the most hotly contested district in this year's City Council race. From Girard to Eubank, Lomas to Gibson, the Nob Hill area and beyond, voters have been inundated with home visits from Council hopefuls. Four candidates vie for the seat formerly occupied by Councilor Martin Heinrich. All of their campaigns are staffed by wives, sons and friends of the contenders.
Though using city funds to finance elections might not seem like a big deal on its face, it's made all the difference for a candidate like Rey Garduño, who Tomás says wouldn't be able to run for Council were it not for public financing. "Especially on local campaigns, the folks that were going to be able to run were either folks that had really strong political connections and were willing to be driven by large campaign contributions or people that are independently wealthy."
Not that the Garduños lack in political associations. Rey Garduño is the vice chair of the board of Common Cause New Mexico, an organization that two years ago pushed for the public campaign fund initiative to find a place on the ballot. Tomás himself took a two-month unpaid leave of absence from his job as an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project. In his position with SWOP, Tomás says he was always running into the problem of big industries having the ear of those in power. "It became a serious pattern, where because of the money and the sway these folks have over the public officials, they were not voting in the interest of their constituents."
Caleb Koke is a volunteer assistant with the campaign of his mother, Paulette de'Pascal, a publicly financed candidate. She was put through local media's wringer in July. de'Pascal was bankrupt after a messy divorce, though she's using about $32,000 in public funds to run her campaign. Koke says de'Pascal would have run with or without that cash. This method's simply preferable for a candidate that wants to be independent, he adds. "When you go public financing, you don't owe anybody favors," Koke says. "She could have run otherwise, but she didn't want to alter her relationship with people who could have fronted the money for this kind of campaign."
Cathryn McGill, manager of Joanie Griffin's campaign, says public money levels the playing field and also gives candidates time to meet people and develop a platform. "If you have to concentrate on fundraising instead of getting your message out, you can't be single-minded and focus on your issues," she says.
Plus, adds McGill, publicly funded campaigns aid in the election of candidates who want to help their neighborhoods. "I don't necessarily think we want people who are making a career out of being a city councilor or who are using the office as a launching pad for other offices." The system allows an average resident who is concerned about the direction of the city to do something about it. "People who are qualified, concerned citizens, regardless of their financial, socioeconomic status, can participate in the public process."
Even the candidates using public funds can identify problems with the new system. On the mind of Philip Muller, owner of Political Technologies Inc. and adviser to Council President Debbie O'Malley's campaign, is a reporting process he says puts the publicly financed candidates at a "serious disadvantage." Take the O'Malley/Katherine Martinez race for District 2. O'Malley's using public funds, and Martinez isn't. If Martinez chooses to raise more than the $32,000 or so O'Malley' has in the vault, and if there's enough money in the city's fund, O'Malley will get a check for the difference, according to the rules of the program.
However, campaigns owe the City Clerk’s Office disclosure statements by Sept. 7 and again at the end of the month. After Sept. 7, if Martinez rakes in a bunch of extra funds, that cash won't be reported until Sept. 28, just five days before the election on Oct. 2. Even if O'Malley gets a check from the city the very next day on Sept. 29, there's little time to spend it. "The candidate that's not taking public financing can do all their hit attacks and whatever they want to do," Muller says. "The candidate that is taking public financing, for all intents and purposes, can't respond. That could be fatal. It's very frustrating, and it's not fair."
Almost all the publicly financed candidates can agree on another small change. To qualify for public financing, candidates had to get a $5 donation from 1 percent of the voters in their districts during the month of May. As it stands, candidates were asked to pull together all their qualifying contributions and then go back out a second time in July to get signatures from voters to appear on the ballot. With four candidates in District 6, three of whom were knocking on the same doors twice, voters began to show some weariness at all the home visits. It would be less arduous if candidates could simultaneously request the ballot signatures and the $5 donation.
Since the rules governing public financing are part of a charter and not in the election code, the only way to change them is to send an ammended charter out for vote again, according to Randy Autio, interim city clerk.
Among the other problems, most door-knockers also report a lot of blank looks on the faces of voters who were uninformed about public financing. When requesting that five bucks, many residents initially seemed confused and had never heard of the system, which was put on the books two years ago. A public education effort by the city might be useful in the future, campaigners say.
One day someone asked Kevin Wilson who his campaign manager was, and he named Joan, his wife. It was a surprise to Joan, a mother of three kids, though she'd been printing leaflets in their home office, managing the voter lists and helping him organize his door-knocking efforts. Joan Wilson, corralling her youngest daughter while we chat in her kitchen—again near the heart of campaign HQ—says the new system is good. Since most candidates in their district were using it, it would have been difficult to run for office without it. "We felt like so much of the campaign was that first month in May getting the public financing. We knew other people were going to get it. It was going to be so much harder to compete against $27,000 in our district."
Tell that to Blair Kaufman, the one candidate in District 6 not using public financing. He'd raised about $2,000 when the Alibi spoke last week with his campaign manger, Ann Piper, who is Kaufman's wife. Kaufman's campaign wasn't formalized in time to take advantage of public financing. He entered the race in early June. "We're spending minimal time soliciting donations," she says. "We're running a very lean campaign."
Kaufman's campaign won't be able to put out slick mailers, which is what most of the other campaigns have spent their dough on. Instead, Piper says, they, too, are going door-to-door, attending forums and meeting constituents face-to-face. "We're in a different position," she says. "I wouldn't call it a disadvantage."
Most of the people Piper's spoken with are surprised candidates get as much public money as they do. But McGill says it's a tight budget. When Griffin first asked her to join her campaign, "She told me there would not be enough money except to do mailers and those kinds of necessary things," she says. "I think we probably didn't realize how little money we were getting. Things are very expensive. You have to be very judicious in how you spend the money."
Councilor Brad Winter, who's defending his seat in District 4 against de'Pascal without public financing, says candidates are receiving way too much money to run their campaigns. "My first race, I raised $5,000. My second one, probably $10,000. My opponent's going to make $34,000. I feel like I have to raise $30,000. That's more money than I probably would have used because of all the money that's being given out as public financing." That's more than double what Winter, who's been a councilor for eight years, thinks should be spent on a campaign in his district. "$15,000 would be about right."
Winter says he's also concerned with what the public money can buy. "I can use campaign money to buy a computer or to buy a bicycle. I never would, but legally, I can do it."
O’Malley’s opponent Martinez has also been soured on public funding. She gathered between 200 and 300 extra qualifying contributions—the $5 donations from registered voters—although many of them were thrown out by the City Clerk's Office for technical reasons (the voters weren't in her district or they couldn't read the signature). She came up just a handful shy, short maybe fewer than 20, and didn't get public financing. The donations that were discounted went into the public campaign fund, says interim City Clerk Autio.
Martinez opted to run anyway, going the traditional route of private fundraising to get the job done. Though she declined to name the amount lining her coffers ("It's different for me because the other people that you're reporting on have public financing. They have a set amount," she said), it's competitive with the $32,000 or so O'Malley will use for her race. "I could have gone over," she adds, "But I'm not."
Martinez is the director of government and community affairs with the Home Builders Association of Central New Mexico, though she's quick to point out that her campaign contributions come from a variety of places. "I've been raising money from all different sources—people who live in District 2 to small business owners in District 2 to support from the building industry," she says.
Though supporters of the new process argue it guarantees greater political independence, Elizabeth Shields, the consultant who's running Trudy Jones' uncontested campaign in District 8, says the new method has a blinding effect. "Whenever you have a privately financed campaign, you see more clearly the ties that the individual has," Shields says. "You see where the money's coming from. With publicly financed candidates, you just don't know." Shields and Jones disagree with public financing on ethical grounds.
She, too, says excessive cash is being dumped into campaigns, using the four-candidate District 6 as an example. Three publicly funded candidates pulled down about $27,000 each, though the winner will only be paid around $10,000 to sit on the Council, she points out. Shields says she would never work on a city-funded campaign. "I don't see that giving taxpayer dollars is the solution to making elections more ethical."