Bowser signs bill for pub­licly fi­nanced cam­paigns

The Washington Post - - METRO - BY PETER JAMISON

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has signed a law that will cre­ate pub­licly fi­nanced elec­tions, re­vers­ing her pre­vi­ous op­po­si­tion to a plan that ad­vo­cates say will help curb money’s in­flu­ence in District pol­i­tics.

Bowser an­nounced that she was throw­ing her sup­port be­hind the Fair Elec­tions Act, which was ap­proved unan­i­mously by the D.C. Coun­cil in Fe­bru­ary. The law, which will first af­fect elec­tions in 2020, will steer mil­lions an­nu­ally to­ward the cam­paigns of lo­cal can­di­dates and is aimed at re­duc­ing their re­liance on deep­pock­eted donors.

Bowser had pre­vi­ously threat­ened not to fund the leg­is­la­tion, say­ing the money would be bet­ter spent on city ser­vices than on po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. But as she signed the bill Tues­day, the mayor in­di­cated that she had been con­vinced dur­ing re­cent pub­lic meet­ings that the pro­gram has wide­spread sup­port.

“Over the past few weeks at bud­get en­gage­ment fo­rums and com­mu­nity meet­ings across the District, res­i­dents have shown up to share their belief that the Fair Elec­tions Act would strengthen our democ­racy,” Bowser said in a writ­ten state­ment. “I have heard them and I have been moved by their pas­sion.”

The switch may help Bowser, who is seek­ing a se­cond term, com­bat a per­cep­tion that she hasn’t done enough to erase a “pay to play” cul­ture in city gov­ern­ment. A Washington Post poll last sum­mer showed that District res­i­dents rated Bowser neg­a­tively con­cern­ing her ef­forts to curb the in­flu­ence of wealthy po­lit­i­cal donors, with 48 per­cent say­ing she was do­ing a poor job while 31 per­cent said she was do­ing a good or ex­cel­lent job.

The pro­gram will cost $3.8 mil­lion in 2020, the first year in which pub­licly fi­nanced elec­tions would take place, in­creas­ing to $7.9 mil­lion in 2021. The District’s cur­rent an­nual bud­get is roughly $13.9 bil­lion.

Coun­cil mem­ber Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), one of the bill’s spon­sors, praised the mayor’s about­face.

“I’m glad to see her sign the bill and glad to see her change her mind,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing that she lis­tened not just to the coun­cil, but that she lis­tened to the peo­ple.”

Allen said the law would en­gi­neer a “par­a­digm shift” in D.C. pol­i­tics, which for decades has been marred by scan­dals in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cal donors.

“It’s one way that we take big money out of pol­i­tics. It’s one way that you take cor­po­rate con­tri­bu­tions out of pol­i­tics. And it’s a way that you help grass-roots can­di­dates be able to be com­pet­i­tive and have their voice heard,” Allen said.

Mon­ica Ka­men, co-di­rec­tor of the D.C. Fair Bud­get Coali­tion, said in a state­ment that the new law is “a huge step for­ward for the District and for our democ­racy. With of­fi­cials truly elected by the peo­ple to serve the peo­ple, we can look for­ward to greater in­vest­ments and at­ten­tion paid to all of the press­ing is­sues af­fect­ing District res­i­dents like hous­ing se­cu­rity, eco­nomic jus­tice, food ac­cess, health­care, and com­mu­nity safety.”

A sep­a­rate bill mov­ing through the coun­cil’s ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee — which Allen heads — would also limit cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions by con­trac­tors who do busi­ness with the city.

Bowser ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have de­clined to take a po­si­tion on such lim­its, say­ing the mayor would wait to see the fi­nal ver­sion of the leg­is­la­tion.

Ad­vo­cates of elec­tion re­form have lauded the District’s ef­forts to en­act stronger ethics rules for cam­paigns — while also crit­i­ciz­ing those ef­forts as be­lated.

Un­der Washington’s vol­un­tary pro­gram, can­di­dates who ac­cept pub­lic fi­nanc­ing must agree to smaller con­tri­bu­tion lim­its for their donors. In ex­change, they re­ceive match­ing funds at a rate of $5 for ev­ery $1 raised from a District res­i­dent.

De­pend­ing on the of­fice, can­di­dates must also raise a thresh­old sum of money from a cer­tain num­ber of con­trib­u­tors to qual­ify for the pro­gram.

In a may­oral race, for ex­am­ple, a can­di­date would have to raise $40,000 from at least 1,000 small­dol­lar con­trib­u­tors be­fore be­com­ing el­i­gi­ble for pub­lic fi­nanc­ing. The can­di­date’s donors would then have to abide by an in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tion limit of $200, com­pared to the cur­rent $2,000 limit for may­oral races.

A qual­i­fy­ing may­oral can­di­date would also re­ceive a $160,000 base grant.

The District now joins about 30 other ju­ris­dic­tions — in­clud­ing Mont­gomery County, New York City and San Francisco — with a pub­lic cam­paign fi­nance sys­tem, ac­cord­ing to De­mos, a left-lean­ing think tank.

“I’m glad to see her sign the bill and glad to see her change her mind. I think it’s a great thing that she lis­tened.” D.C. Coun­cil mem­ber Charles Allen (D-Ward 6)

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