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Campaign Finance: What A Bust

Surprise, surprise, the campaign finance law isn’t working very well against all these millionaire office-seekers

Gregory B. Hladky

May 11, 2010

The cutthroat reality of big-money politics is thinning the herd of candidates in Connecticut’s race for governor. If you’ve got the cash or know how to get it, you can play; otherwise you’re out on your ass.

The great irony is that 2010 wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Connecticut’s wonderful new public campaign financing was going to use taxpayer dollars to “level the playing field” and “open up the system.”

If you want to know how that’s working, listen to the comments of Juan Figueroa, a liberal Democrat who just dropped out of the race for his party’s nomination.

“Many of us can’t compete because we can’t raise the money, and there are a record number of millionaires running. It’s horrible,” he says. “It can’t be all about being independently wealthy or being a professional politician in order to run for office. … I don’t think that was the intent when they put this [public campaign financing program] together.”

“It’s called a ‘Citizens Election Program,’ but the way it’s set up now, it’s not very friendly to citizens,” says Figueroa.

“The idea that if you shower everybody with public money more people will get in to campaign, that’s been disproven here,” says state Republican Chairman Chris Healy.

Beth Rotman, director of the state’s campaign finance program, insists such criticism is unfair. She argues this is “an incredibly unusual year” in which the new system is facing huge court challenges and multiple millionaires seeking state office. “It’s definitely been a hard year for the program,” she says.

So far, of all the candidates running for governor, only one has been able to raise the $250,000 in small contributions needed to qualify for public campaign financing. Former Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy is that lone qualifying candidate, and it took him more than 18 months and a dedicated statewide network of supporters to make it happen.

Now that Malloy’s done it, he can count on at least $1.25 million and possibly as much as $2.5 million for a primary campaign. If he ends up winning a primary, he could receive a total of $8.5 million for the whole election season.

Millionaire candidates like Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican Tom Foley have decided to use their own money rather than accept the icky spending limitations and tiresome qualifying requirements of the public financing system.

Their presence in the race has put pressure on opponents counting on getting public campaign dollars out of a program that seems likely to very soon be declared unconstitutional by the federal courts.

One federal judge has already said the law unfairly forces minor party candidates to jump through special hoops to get taxpayer money. Connecticut politicians are now waiting for a federal appellate court to decide that issue and determine whether the law’s ban on contributions by lobbyists and state contractors violates their political free speech rights.

The state legislature could have tackled those problems, but couldn’t quite manage it before the May 5 adjournment deadline. Legislative leaders have already set the stage for a special General Assembly session to approve repairs if the courts rule the law unconstitutional.

“We’re expecting it,” state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney says of a quick federal ruling. The one action the legislature did take was to give itself a full 30 days (as opposed the one week specified under the campaign finance law) to correct any flaws identified by the courts.

By the time any problems with the campaign finance law get fixed, it will be too late for a number of gubernatorial wannabes or to contain the candidates who have already opted out of the system. The Democratic and Republican nominating conventions for statewide office will be held in a week and a half, and they will help determine who will be running in primaries this August.

The list of candidates already winnowed out by the money issue includes state House Speaker Jim Amann, who dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination months ago. Susan Bysiewicz ended her Democratic gubernatorial run in January when she was the front runner, and many believe it was the prospect of facing Lamont’s big money without a solid campaign finance system behind her that forced that decision.

Mary Glassman, Simsbury’s first selectwoman, also got out of the contest last week, preferring to campaign as Lamont’s running mate. Glassman is another vocal supporter of public financing, and it was uncertain if she could reach the threshold to qualify for public campaign dollars.

Figueroa’s departure left just three in the Democratic race: Lamont, Malloy and Rudy Marconi, first selectman of Ridgefield, who is also hoping to use public campaign dollars. Marconi has so far raised a little over $66,000, making it almost impossible for him to reach the $250,000 qualifying threshold for matching funds.

On the Republican side, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele is planning on using public financing. “I’m probably 80 percent there,” he says of his goal of qualifying. He adds the difficulty of raising all those $100 contributions has been made far more difficult because so many candidates are going after the same pool of money.

Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton is the only other Republican in the race who wants to use public campaign dollars. Oz Griebel, a Hartford-area business leader, and former U.S. Rep. Larry DeNardis of Hamden have both decided against participating.

Connecticut’s Green Party isn’t even bothering to field a candidate for governor this year, preferring to put its energies toward other races like Mike DeRosa’s bid for secretary of the state. All he has to do as a minor-party candidate to get public financing is secure about 210,000 valid voter signatures and raise $75,000 in donations of $100 or less, a massive task DeRosa isn’t sure is worth the effort. “I’m being discriminated against,” says DeRosa, whose party is part of the law’s constitutional challenge.

Rotman says changes may need to be made to give candidates a better shot at qualifying for public campaign dollars. But she adds that the law’s intent is to require candidates to show they have “a significant amount of public support” by pulling in lots of small contributions.

“It’s not supposed to be easy,” says Rotman.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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