Testimony before Cleveland City Council Finance Committee on Campaign Contribution Limits

Greg Coleridge, Director, Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee

February 8, 2016

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the difficulty City Council faces when considering the issue of campaign contribution limits. There are numerous factors, some competing against one another, that must be understood and balanced. To be specific, there are 5 factors that are important to be addressed.

  1. The importance of having sufficient funds to run a political campaign
  2. The importance of understanding the different political strategies in elections between organizing money and organizing people
  3. The importance of establishing the proper contribution limits to minimize the influence of special interests
  4. The importance to create not just the reality, but equally important, the perception that the contribution limits are fair, just and proportionate
  5. The importance to understand your own limitations in establishing local laws.

Importance of having sufficient funds to run a political campaign

  • You don’t have to win the campaign financing arms race, but you do need to be credible to reach a certain minimum threshold.
  • Minimum thresholds are relative of course, based on rising costs, political competition, gerrymandered districts in which previously known candidates may now be unknown, etc.

Importance of understanding the different political strategies in elections between organizing money and organizing people

  • It’s often been said there are 2 ultimate sources of political power: money and people. If you don’t have 1, you sure better have the other.
  • Money is a crutch. It can be used as a substitute to engage directly with voters. Money centered campaigns creates 1 way communication via advertisements. It also can transform candidates into products that are sold to voters via slick commercials or mailers.
  • At a municipal level, a huge campaign war chest is not necessarily needed to win – more so of course at the ward level than a citywide race. Nevertheless, an effective volunteer people-centered ground game even for Mayor led by the candidate in a “high-touch” campaign can offset to a great extent a “high-tech” money-centered campaign. It’s more work, energy and time, but can be accomplished.
  • The communication of a people-centered campaign is also different than a money-centered campaign because it’s two way. More direct connection means voters not only hear from candidates but they can speak to candidates – which is vital to keep candidates accountable to voters.

The importance of establishing the proper contribution limits to minimize the influence of special interests

  • High campaign contributions limits or caps can have a corrupting influence on politics, politicians and public policy.
  • Potential political contributors should never believe they could become actual political investors by giving a campaign a huge sum of money, expecting a political or economic return. This is much more likely if contribution caps are too high. This can result in wasted taxpayer dollars used to payoff a large contributor/investor.
  • The reverse is also true. Large campaign contribution limits can also entice elected officials to shake down potential funders – with various promises for generous pay-to-play contributors.

The importance to create not just the reality, but equally important, the perception that the contribution limits are fair, just and proportionate

  • The proposed contribution limits call for a 50% increase for ward council and 900% for Mayor.
  • I feel a $10,000 contribution limit for Mayor and $1500 for ward councilpersons is much too high.
  • By comparison, individual contribution limits for President of the United States is $2700 per election. PAC limits are $5000 per year.
  • Why exactly do mayoral candidates believe they should be entitled to receive political contributions in amounts more than 3 times as large as candidates for President of the United States of America? And why should increases be more than the rate of inflation?
  • High contribution limits can create the perception that Cleveland politicians are potentially for sale…or at least for rent.
  • Seen from another perspective, there are tens of thousands of Clevelanders who are economically hurting. Poverty is at 39%. Median household income is less than $25,000. These Clevelanders can’t conceivable relate to giving a political candidate $100, let alone $10,000. They are trying to do more with less. It would seem appropriate that those who they elect to represent them might want to consider trying to do the same.
  • President Carter last week in an interview on the BBC called large political contributions at the federal level “legalized bribery.” This is what increasingly citizens feel – victimized by a political “capital punishment,” – meaning if they don’t have political capital to invest in elections, they will be punished – by not having their voices heard, their needs met, their communities helped. This is what citizens in Akron felt in 1998 when they passed by an overwhelming margin a campaign finance reform ballot initiative that I helped organize. It’s also the feeling of citizens who are organizing for the passage of city council resolutions and ballot initiatives across the country to get big money out of elections from wealthy individuals and corporate entities.

Finally, the importance to understand your own limitations in establishing local laws

  • Meaningful campaign finance reform is needed everywhere.
  • However, there’s only so much that can be done by you and other legislatures.
  • Our government is increasingly broken because the system is fixed – as in rigged to benefit the super wealthy and corporate interests that have corrupted and perverted the Constitution to equate corporations as legal persons and money as equivalent to free speech.
  • These two doctrines make any real reform virtually impossible. All that can be done under the current constitutional ground rules is construct campaign finance “speed bumps.”
  • The ultimate solution to the problem is to end corporate personhood and money as speech. That what the MTA citizen initiative seeks to do.
  • You may or may not know, Councilwoman Cleveland certainly does as a member of the committee, that there is currently a citizen initiative being circulated which seeks to place on this November’s ballot in Cleveland, calling on Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment to end corporate personhood and money defined as free speech.
  • If passed, this constitutional amendment would allow you, as local elected representatives, to truly define the amounts and sources of campaign contributions that make sense to you and citizens. It also would allow real public financing of elections.
  • In the meantime, it’s an imperfect world. Special interests have many ways to circumvent any limitations, however small or large, that you determine.
  • However, what you do, in establishing contribution limits, nevertheless sends a message – to citizens, voters, and potential funders.
  • May the limits that you agree to send the message across the city that the voices of citizens without money will not be drowned out by the voices of citizens and noncitizens that do contribute to the political campaigns in Cleveland.

Thank you.

Contact: GColeridge@AFSC.org / 330-928-2301

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