ConnPIRG) at the DeKoven House last night.
Meghan Hassett, a community organizer for ConnPIRG, moderated the discussion, which included two city residents who have played an important role in election reform, Representative Matt Lesser, and Common Cause Senior Vice President Karen Hobart Flynn.
Lesser, who represents half of our city at the State capitol, credits his involvement in state government to the introduction of the Citizens Election Program (CEP). The CEP provides taxpayer funded grants to candidates who raise a specified amount of money in small donations ($5 to $100) and who pledge to forego contributions from corporations and lobbyists. Lesser said that the CEP had made it possible for new individuals to be elected, and as a result the Legislature was younger, included more women, and was more diverse.
Flynn worked for 10 years with a variety of groups to pass the CEP. She emphasized that election financing programs like CEP were entirely voluntary, they provide incentives for participation but candidates are free to stay out of them. She pointed to a recent New York Times article that identified just 158 families who have contributed half of all funding for the 2016 presidential candidates. She said that when the wealthy few dominate the money, the politicians are inevitably more concerned with the desires of these mega donors than with the needs of ordinary voters, "It's no wonder people are disengaging."
Hassett asked the panelists why there should be a focus on campaign finance at the local level. Lesser immediately responded, "It's the unfinished business." The 2005 state legislation that led to campaign finance reform specifically granted cities and towns the right to enact similar programs. Very few municipalities did. Flynn said there were many different models that could be considered, based on what cities such as New Haven, Seattle, Los Angeles, and others have implemented. One model might be a grant system that requires a minimum qualifying number of small contributions, another might be a system in which small donations are matched by grants.
There were about 20 residents in attendance. One of them, Joe Milardo, vociferously protested these campaign finance reform ideas, even as he at the same time agreed that it should be individuals, not corporations, who finance elections. He asked what the problem with the current system was, and said he felt the Middletown elections had always been fair. He asked whether it would be fair for a Democratic and a Republican candidate to receive the same amount of money if the city has twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
Another resident, Steve Angle, noted that the question, "what is fair" is a difficult one to answer. He said that even if public financing did not have any direct effect on the outcomes of elections, it would still provide a huge benefit to residents, who would know that decisions made on their behalf would be less likely to be influenced by corporate campaign contributions.
Council member Gerald Daley expressed his skepticism that voters would support the use of tax money on elections, "The problem is that there's a lot of people saying, 'fill the potholes on my street' [before spending money on campaign signs]."
Lesser summed up the feelings of many others in the room, "However expensive elections are, not having clean elections is more expensive."
Hassett closed by pointing to upcoming opportunities for those interested in Middletown campaign finance reform to become involved. There is a letter to Mayor Drew, as well as a petition, calling on him "to stand up for the voices of your constituents by supporting the enactment of a small donor campaign financing program in Middletown."
Author's disclosure. I support a change in Middletown's ordinances that would reduce the influence of corporations on our city's elections.