Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Will unlimited donations flood county exec race?

How much money should a single wealthy person be allowed to give candidates for Cuyahoga County executive?

$1,000? $5,000? $12,000? $25,000?

How about $100,000? $300,000? Or $400,000?

Guess what? Due to a huge gap in the law, there’s no limit to what one person can donate to a candidate for county office.

This hole is big enough to buy a government through. It should’ve been plugged when we got a new county government. But proposals to fix it have gone nowhere.

Now, there’s finally some hope for change. Cuyahoga County’s charter review commission is considering two proposals to cut off the unlimited flow of money starting in 2014. It’s set to debate both ideas at its meeting Saturday morning, the 15th.*

It’s time for someone to act. Candidates are already running to succeed Ed FitzGerald next year – and right now, millionaires are free to invest five-figure or six-figure donations in them, in hopes of getting VIP access once they’re in office.

Races for federal, state, and Cleveland offices have sensible limits on one person’s ability to influence a candidate with donations. You can only give a candidate for president or Congress $2,600 a year. In Cleveland’s mayor and city council races, it’s $1,000. Ohio has much higher limits on donations to candidates for state office -- $12,300 this year – but that’s better than nothing.

The framers of the new county charter should have established limits on donations in 2009. But they didn’t. They unwisely punted the decision to the very elected leaders who stand to benefit from big donations.

During the transition to the new government, an advisory group suggested limits of $750 per election cycle to county council candidates and $1,000 to candidates for executive and prosecutor.

But the new county council failed to act. It debated whether to adopt the statewide limits of $12,300 as its own, or lower limits, but did neither.

Now, the charter review commission -- which has until July 1 to propose amendments to the county charter -- is considering two campaign finance reform ideas.

One proposed amendment would explicitly give the county council the power or duty to enact campaign finance laws, including limits on donations. That would prod the council to act.

The other comes from charter commission member William Tarter. He proposes amending the county charter to establish the same limit per donor in county races as in state races, $12,300.

Tarter says limits on huge contributions help empower smaller donors. “This is an opportunity for people to feel their contribution has a greater impact on the candidates,” he says.

Bruce Akers, chairman of the charter review commission, says the panel is “very divided” on the subject of campaign finance. Some members support Tarter’s idea. Others support new charter language that would nudge the council to act. One member is opposed to taking any action about campaign finance at all.

Citizens who want to limit big money’s influence on our local politics ought to get involved in this debate right away. But they face a dilemma. Should they back Tarter’s more specific proposal to link county donor limits to the state’s high limits? Or back an amendment that would put the issue back before the county council -- which might enact lower limits, but might enact none at all?

Tarter’s proposal would, at least, stop the biggest checks from flowing. And the last race for county executive proves it’s time to make a change.

In 2010, candidate Matt Dolan got contributions of $400,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and $300,000 from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan. The next six-figure donations may not be a family affair.

Big checks flowed to the old county government too. Before the late developer Dick Jacobs sold the Ameritrust complex to Cuyahoga County in 2005, he had a five-figure donor relationship with commissioners Jimmy Dimora and Peter Lawson Jones. Jacobs seeded their first campaigns for commission seats, giving Dimora $36,000 in 1998 and Jones in 2002.

Maybe Jacobs’ donations had nothing to do with the county’s unwise purchase of the Ameritrust complex, which led to an $18 million loss for taxpayers. But it’s a spectacular example of why no single donor should dominate an elected leader’s campaign fund -- and why campaign finance limits are the Cuyahoga County reform effort's biggest unfinished business.

*Update, 6/10: I originally wrote that the charter commission would discuss campaign finance "this Saturday," meaning the 8th. The commission ended up not tackling it on the 8th.  It'll take up the question on the 15th.

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