Want clean elections? Public financing is the answer.

Bad weather and the influx of big money in political campaigns might appear to have something in common: Everybody complains about them but nobody seems capable of doing anything about either. In fact, while snow and ice may be the unstoppable product of Mother Nature, there is something which can be done to alter the influence of big bucks in our elective process.    

There has been a lot of news on this front.  Public financing of local and state political races caught fire about a decade ago. From Oregon to Maine, New York to New Mexico, citizens in municipalities and legislators in state capitols enacted laws that limited the avalanche of private money pouring into campaign coffers. The bad news has been that with the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FEC and other related cases, many of these local and state laws have been wiped off the books because of the limits they put on contributions.

Nevertheless,  a Clean Elections Initiative has an excellent chance of making it onto the City of San Diego ballot in 2020, allowing the voters  to decide if they want candidates running for mayor, city attorney and city council seats to opt out of the race for large private donations and opt into public financing for both the primary and November election cycles.

As written, the program would be overseen by the San Diego Ethics Commission, require scheduled debates by fund recipients, and adopt a logotype (a distinctive imprint for campaign materials) which would signal to voters that the candidate has said an unqualified “no” to large private donations and the influence that inevitably accompanies the money. Support is already building for this effort. Twenty or so groups including community town councils from Rancho Peñasquitos to Linda Vista and civic organizations, such as the League of Women Voters, have given the effort an enthusiastic thumbs up.  The Clean Elections initiative would permit candidates who reject public financing to raise private money in accordance with existing law.

But public financing of campaigns has several distinct advantages over the current system: First, voters know in advance the source of money coming to a candidate.

Second, serious but underfunded candidates who otherwise might not have a chance given the current system would receive the support necessary to make their platform known.    

Third, with new and different office seekers in the mix, voters who have grown discouraged by the lack of exciting choices would again be inclined to participate in local elections.    

And finally, the public option would have a liberating effect. Imagine candidates actually spending the bulk of their time getting to know the issues and expectations of the people they seek to represent rather than worrying about meeting with fat-cat donors to fund their campaigns.

The late Tip O’Neill, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once famously observed that there are four parts to any political campaign: The candidate, the issues, the campaign organization, and the money. And then he noted that if you don’t have the money you can forget about the other parts. A Clean Elections law in San Diego would make sure the last of these four elements  doesn’t  get in the way of the other three.

If we can agree that big money has become central to the calculus of success at the polls, then it is only logical to find a way to limit its corrupting influence. If the citizens of San Diego get behind this initiative it will be a signal that they truly want the best candidates — not just the best funded — to become the future leaders of our community. 

Mark Linsky is an adjunct professor of political science at San Diego City College.

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