Does Santa Cruz need campaign finance reform?
Every competitor knows the importance of setting clear rules before the start of a game, tournament or season—whether it’s a pick-up game in the park or the NBA. Should an election be any different? Of course not.
That helps explain why the next few weeks are important for Santa Cruz’s 2014 November election season, which will get into full swing soon. With changes afoot in Santa Cruz’s campaign finance landscape and more possible ones coming, the way city council candidates run could be about to shift. Even if the rules don’t change, the norms might.
City councilman Micah Posner, who ran partly on campaign finance reform in 2012, is helping lead the charge on a few levels. Most notably, he’s proposing a plan, along with Councilman Don Lane, to provide matching city funds for council candidates. Posner says good politicians and candidates don’t always make great fund raisers. He hopes his proposal would give a boost to people working toward an honest shot, while providing a few safeguards.
“You don’t get any money until you raise $5,000,” Posner says of the plan. “If you look at the history of candidates in Santa Cruz, we’ve had lots of not-serious candidates, but they haven’t raised $5,000.”
So, if you raise $5,000, you’d get $5,000. There would be another threshold at $10,000—if a candidate reached that point, they’d get another matching $5,000 public contribution A third and final threshold around $13,000 would bring a candidate to more than $26,000 in possible funds. The plan would cost up to an estimated $50,000 annually—less than .03 percent of the city’s budget. Santa Cruz would join the dozens of cities, including Seattle, that have public campaign finance. Four states, including Arizona, also have public campaign finance.
“I want Santa Cruz to be seen as a city that’s part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Posner says.
To glance at extreme examples of money in politics gone wrong, we need not look past San Francisco, where FBI agents arrested Secretary of State candidate Leland Yee, a state senator, in March for bribery and illegal gun trafficking. Nationally, campaign finance reform activists have criticized a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and labor unions to make contributions as large as they’d like.
“It’s just damn important. It’s the most important political issue in the entire country, because if you have a rigged game, then you don’t get good results,” Posner says of the national and state issues. “It’s amazing we have as good of politicians as we do, given that the playing field is so corrupt nationally. Imagine the pressure someone like Leland Yee is under. He has to raise $3-5 million to win a secretary of state race. Are we surprised that he cracks and is unscrupulous?”
Discussions about campaign finance reform aren’t just showing up for the first time in Santa Cruz now; city races have had voluntary contribution and expenditure limits for years. This year’s voluntary limits, which adjust each cycle for inflation, stand at $325 for individuals, $780 for groups and a little under $27,000 for total campaign expenditures.
Those limits are in the spotlight this year, because the new plan would make the voluntary individual limits mandatory. People’s Democratic Club of Santa Cruz and the College Democrats at UC Santa Cruz have both agreed to endorse only candidates who accept both voluntary limits.
With only two candidates in the race so far, it’s hard to say how much the proposed plan would change the landscape. Candidate Richelle Noroyan plans to follow the individual contribution limits, but not the overall limits, which she doesn’t see as necessary.
“I’m all for campaign finance reform, but I don’t think it’s a problem if a candidate receives a lot of money, and it comes from a bunch of different sources. It isn’t negative,” she says. “It shows support from many different people. The biggest problem in campaign finance reform is when [a lot of] money comes from a certain source.”
Noroyan also argues that overall limits favor incumbents, who have more name recognition: they have run before, and voters are used to hearing about them. Posner counters that incumbents are also better at raising money. Former councilman Ryan Coonerty, now running for county supervisor, has mentioned the incumbent problem as a main reason he opted out of the limits during his first campaign in 2004—although he did opt out again for re-election in 2008.
Current city council members Lynn Robinson, Pamela Comstock, David Terrazas, Cynthia Mathews and Hilary Bryant all spent more than the overall limit in recent elections, too, with Bryant topping the list at $43,000. Noroyan opted out in 2012, but still didn’t reach the limit when it came time to raise the dough—something she plans to improve on this time.
Noroyan notes that the two highest fundraisers in the past two elections were women, and thinks gender comes into play for voters. She adds that Comstock finished behind fellow newcomer Posner despite outspending him, and former mayor Mathews finished behind then-incumbent Lane, despite outspending him. While there are many factors that go into elections, Noroyan believes women candidates need to spend more to succeed.
“I look at that trend, and it’s troublesome to me. It’s a double whammy—being a non-incumbent and a woman. I want to win. I don’t want to do anything that would put myself at a disadvantage,” she says.
She’s not the only one looking at the numbers. Posner has a volunteer and two interns working with former mayor Bruce Van Allen to research whether or not campaign spending impacts how well candidates do in city elections in advance of a discussion at the Santa Cruz Police Community Room on May 4. “We want to show that it can work on the local level before moving up to the national one,” intern Margret Esguerra says.
No other city council member wanted to speak in detail about Posner and Lane’s campaign finance proposal. Bryant said she’d rather take a look at the staff report first, once the issue comes before council on June 10. She and Terrazas, who are both considering runs in this year’s election, might become part of the discussion on campaign finance as both council members and as candidates.
Posner says he’s open to amendments from other council members on the draft and acknowledges Santa Cruz doesn’t have big problems with money and corruption. That’s why he’d like to get started on solutions now.
“You see a problem that is likely to develop, that has developed everywhere else in the country. And you have a place where it’s not that bad yet, and you say, ‘Hey, here’s a chance proactively to set some rules where we’re not in that much of a disagreement,’” he explains. “If you’re going to set rules about your poker game, you set them before you start playing. You’re not going to wait until someone is cheating or abusing their chips. Then it’s too late.”
Noroyan says there are a lot of other things to consider when it comes to public financing, including the influence of large groups, which can’t always be factored into the expenditures. She notes the SEIU endorsed Posner in 2012 and sent out a few mailers for him in an election season and that some organizations sent out mailers for her too. She says clamping down on expenditures can give certain organizations a lot of power.
“No matter what you do, there’s nothing you can do it to make it perfect,” she says.
INFO: Sunday May 4, 5 p.m., Santa Cruz Police Community Room, 155 Center St, Santa Cruz. For more information about the campaign finance proposal, visit civinomics.com.