If you want to get really depressed about our local representative democracy, I invite you to watch this video of the Cuyahoga County Council, petulantly refusing to regulate donations to county political campaigns in any way whatsoever.
By a 9-2 vote last week, the council members left the door wide open for gargantuan checks to flood the 2014 race for county executive, and maybe even their own re-election funds. They rejected a charter amendment that would give them the power to regulate donations in races for county executive, council and prosecutor. Single donations of $20,000, $50,000, $100,000, $400,000? It’s all legal!
Take a look at the video, from 43:00 to 1:11:00. You'll see that allowing a single wealthy donor to dominate a politician’s campaign fund -- and wield way too much influence on them once elected -- doesn’t faze the council.
Councilmen Michael Gallagher and Dan Brady said there’s no evidence of a problem to fix. Sunny Simon said she doesn’t want to limit candidates’ ability to compete with self-funding millionaire candidates. Gallagher and Jack Schron complained that they, as elected officials, already have to follow too many campaign regulations. Council president Ellen Connally said regulating more could create a “chilling effect” on candidates running for office. Some said they didn’t want to be stuck making rules that applied to themselves.
All in all, the council showed lots of concern about themselves and other politicians, and little for the voters who want elected officials to listen to them, not one or two wealthy patrons.
The council’s decision means five- and six-figure donations can play a big role in the 2014 race for county executive. It happened in last year’s race for county prosecutor. One man, local businessman Robert Kanner, gave winning candidate Tim McGinty $50,000 – a quarter of all the money, $203,000, that McGinty raised for the Democratic primary race. That doesn’t necessarily mean Kanner will have undue influence over McGinty –- but doesn’t it at least create the potential for influence, or the appearance of influence?
What about the $36,000 that the late Dick Jacobs gave to Jimmy Dimora’s 1998 campaign for county commissioner? We can’t say that early seed money influenced Dimora’s bad decision to buy the Ameritrust complex from Jacobs in 2005. But since prosecutors alleged yesterday that Dimora leaked secret information about the Ameritrust deal, isn’t this at least an example of why one local businessman shouldn’t be able to give that much money?
Two councilpeople voted yes on the campaign finance amendment, Julian Rogers and Dave Greenspan.
“I think it helps to build trust if people know that they can’t necessarily buy influence from their county council person,” says Rogers. “The way it’s currently set, one person can make a contribution that funds an entire campaign for a county councilperson.” (Rogers says he spent about $47,000 on his campaign.)
“Where the county has come from, appearances mean a lot,” he adds. Donor limits are “an opportunity to continue the good effort we’ve begun to bolster our standing in the community and bring back some trust.”
Local activist Greg Coleridge, who’s worked for years to try to regulate money in local elections, says the council’s refusal was disappointing and surprising. He says rejecting the power to regulate campaign finance at all sends a terrible message.
“Hey, we’re open for business!” Coleridge says. “We’re the Wild West! There’s no limits, no enhanced disclosure… Pay to play! Here we are!”
Amid the council members’ self-serving arguments, I also heard resigned cynicism. They know it’s hard to create campaign finance reform in the wake of court cases such as the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Gallagher said he feared donor limits would lead the wealthy to form PACs to go around them – a possibility, but one that’s rare on the local level. Brady complained about Citizens United’s protection of anonymous campaign literature. He and Chuck Germana voted no on the charter amendment, saying public financing of campaigns is the only way to make a difference.
“In a sense, we agree with council,” says Coleridge. He’s part of the Move to Amend effort to overturn Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. “You’re not going to find an absolute loophole-free set of campaign contribution limits.
“In the meantime, to throw up your hands and say we shouldn’t even do anything is sending the message that those who have the most money will have their voices heard loud and clear. And it sends the perception that those who don’t have money, their voices are not going to be heard.”
Coleridge served on a transition panel that recommended sweeping ideas for clean county elections to the new government in 2011, including public financing for county campaigns. The panel’s ideas were ignored.
I think council’s refusal to act on donor limits opens up a chance for reformers to go big. They could start a petition drive for a clean elections charter amendment much like the 2011 proposal: donor limits, electronically searchable campaign reports, and public financing that helps candidates without wealthy supporters to compete.
It wouldn’t be easy. It takes more than 33,000 signatures to get a charter amendment on the ballot. But it’s not impossible. The charter’s framers gathered more than 70,000 signatures to get our new form of government on the 2009 ballot. Coleridge’s group recently collected more than 3,000 signatures for its Move to Amend petition in Cleveland Heights alone.
So far, I’m not hearing anyone in town who’s ready to take this issue directly to the voters. But campaign finance limits are exactly the sort of issue the initiative process was created to address. Voters know that a single wealthy businessperson shouldn’t be able to singlehandedly fund a candidate’s campaign. But the political system won’t do anything about it. Will we?