Wednesday, July 17, 2013

After Cuyahoga council kills campaign finance reform, what's next?

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?

Monday, July 1, 2013

How to ban big money from Cuyahoga Co. elections

It’s time to finish the job of reforming Cuyahoga County government.

Today, the charter review commission releases its proposed amendments to the county charter. Most of its ideas would tweak the checks and balances in our new government -- making it harder for the county executive to fire the sheriff, for example, or writing the job of inspector general into the charter. 

But the best idea is designed to keep big money out of our elections and preserve our political leaders’ independence. It’s an amendment that would give the county council the duty to write campaign finance laws to govern county elections, including limits on campaign donations. 

Right now, wealthy donors can give unlimited contributions to a county executive or county council candidate – checks so big, they practically obligate candidates to give the donor special access once in office.  Five- and six-figure political donations are perfectly legal, even though they can drown out the voices of small donors and non-donors.

“Nationwide, not just this county, the funding of campaigns has gotten totally out of control,” says Bruce Akers, chairman of the charter review commission and a co-author of the 2009 charter.

“You can’t tell me that when candidate Jones or Smith gets elected and someone’s given him six or seven figures … [that it] doesn’t have influence,” Akers says. “There’s got to be some kind of parameters.”

A charter amendment may be the only way Cuyahoga County can limit big-money donations in its elections. Check out this quote from the Secretary of State’s Ohio Campaign Finance Handbook (pdf):

County or local candidates are not limited in the amount of contributions they may receive… unless there is a municipal or county charter that provides otherwise.

The old county government gave us a great example of the need for donor limits. The late developer Dick Jacobs gave Jimmy Dimora $36,000 and Peter Lawson Jones $25,000 in their first races for the old county commission. In 2005, Dimora and Jones voted to buy the vacant Ameritrust complex from Jacobs for almost $22 million. Jacobs got rid of a skyscraper albatross; taxpayers got stuck with it and took a big financial loss.

Can we do better?

Campaign finance reform faces three hurdles. First, the county council would have to vote to put the amendment on November’s ballot. Voters would have to approve it. Then the council would have to use its new power and enact meaningful limits -- in 2014, the year that half of them run for reelection.

That’s hardly a sure thing. Council members may be reluctant to limit donations to their own campaigns. It’s hard to raise a lot of small donations, easier to find a few wealthy sugar daddies.

“It’s difficult for officeholders to put a restriction on themselves,” Akers says. “That’s human nature.”

Which is why Akers and charter commission member William Tarter, Jr., have another idea. In a minority report, they’ve proposed an alternative charter amendment that would require Cuyahoga County to adopt the same campaign finance limit Ohio imposes in state races: currently $12,300. If the council were to put that on the ballot, voters could ban enormous, out-of-control donations in time for the 2014 county executive and council election.

The downside of Tarter and Akers’ idea is that a $12,300 limit is still too high. In races for president or Congress, a donor can only give a candidate $2,600 a year. In elections for Cleveland mayor and city council, it’s $1,000. Lower limits would do more to keep big donors from drowning out the voices of small donors and non-donors. Would the county council go for that?

Maybe – if enough people get behind campaign-finance reform and pressure the council to act.

It makes sense for us to debate how to choose a clerk of courts, protect the inspector general, and change sheriffs. But we can’t let those debates distract from the most important one we need to have this summer: how to keep big money from controlling our new government.

Update, 3:30 pm: Here is the charter review commission's report, which proposes 15 amendments to the county charter. The campaign finance proposal is on page 10.  Tarter and Akers' minority report is on p. 41.

“In 2010,” Tarter and Akers note, “one county candidate received $400,000 from a single individual.” They're thinking of Matt Dolan, who got $400,000 from his uncle, Charles Dolan of Cablevision, and $300,000 from his father, Indians owner Larry Dolan.

I'll write about the other major amendments later this month.