2006 was not the year that California or Berkeley checked the power the purse has to skew elections.
“Clean money”—public financing of elections—was soundly defeated on the state level, with 74 percent of the voters opposing Proposition 89. Berkeley voters bucked the trend, supporting the measure with 64.6 percent of the votes. The measure lost in Alameda County, winning only Emeryville and Albany in addition to Berkeley.
Locally, the Berkeley City Council torpedoed public financing of elections when it refused in June to place the issue on the November ballot.
In doing so, the council majority tossed aside the Fair Campaign Practices Commission’s recommendation to let voters weigh in on whether to underwrite the mayor and council races with public money. The council went on to nix a compromise proposal that would have addressed public financing only for the mayor’s race.
Clean money advocate Sam Ferguson, now a Yale Law School student, worked on the 2006 public financing proposal and had previously tried in 2004 to bring clean money to the city through Measure H, which was defeated by Berkeley voters at the ballot box.
Considering the Nov. 7 election contributions, Ferguson said election reform is needed in Berkeley more than ever.
The District 7 campaign turned into a “political arms race,” Ferguson said, noting that challenger George Beier outspent incumbent Councilmember Kriss Worthington by more than two-to-one. Beier spent about $100,000 of which about $45,000 came from his personal wealth—Worthington raised and spent about $45,000.
“We need to get a grip on this spending before it gets out of control,” Ferguson said, calling public financing of elections “such an obvious reform.”
Along with Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Dona Spring, Councilmember Darryl Moore has been a consistent supporter of public financing of elections. “I’m disappointed that Berkeley did not put it on the ballot,” he said in an interview last week, noting that public financing levels the electoral playing field.
“People of color do not have the same kind of income,” said Moore, who is African American.
Mayor Tom Bates, vacationing in India, said last year that he did not want to support public financing for the November ballot, for fear that if voters rejected it, as they had in 2004, it would be close to impossible to bring it back in the future.
But Councilmember Laurie Capitelli told the Daily Planet last week that he thinks clean money might not be a valid local issue.
“I’m not as concerned about the impact of money on elected officials locally because of what we have in place—fairly severe limits on contributions,” he said, referring to the $250 cap on contributions to local candidates by individuals.
Capitelli said he is more concerned about the cost to the city of public financing. Funding for the mayor-council race, according to the draft measure that did not get on the ballot, would have cost the city about $500,000. For the mayor’s race alone, it would have cost the city about $300,000.
Longtime clean-money advocate Jesse Townley said believing that spending caps for individual contributors is sufficient is “wishful thinking.” Townley contended that contributors bundle contributions through spouses and business partners. He said he thinks local developers have bought influence and skewed development in Berkeley to favor their interests, rather than those of the neighborhoods.
“Whether it’s at the local or state or national level, big money muscles in—they want influence,” he said, adding that new local laws should address the influence of political action committees, given the role the Chamber of Commerce PAC played in the November elections.
The chamber raised about $100,000 to defeat Measure J, the Landmarks Preservation ballot measure, to support Bates and to attempt to defeat Spring and Worthington.
“Voters should be able to evaluate candidates based on their stances, not based on hit pieces,” Townley said, referring to the negative propaganda produced by the Chamber and the Beier campaigns. “This is no way to run a democracy,” he said, adding that he will be conferring with others about next steps to take to bring clean money to Berkeley elections.