By Kolby Granville, Tempe City Council Member
My starting point, one I hope we all share, is that a Council member’s vote should not be influenced by campaign contributions. Each decision should be weighed on the merits and its alignment to community values. While I think this is the case in Tempe, there are several issues that muddy those otherwise idealized waters.
First, contribution limits have changed. When I ran in 2000, the individual contribution limit was a few hundred dollars. When I ran in 2012, I believe it was $430 per individual. For this election it is $6,250 per person. I plan to raise $40,000-$50,000 for my election. $50,000 in small contribution amounts shows a candidate is supported by the community. $50,000 divided by a few PAC’s, or two families of four; shows support not by the many, but by the few.
As an aside, you might say campaign contributions don’t buy influence. I think commercials don’t make me buy soft drinks. However, they must work on somebody because Coke keeps buying advertisements. Similarly, elected officials don’t think contributions buy influence, but they must, because special interests would quit writing checks if they didn’t.
Second, incumbents have a fundraising advantage. This is the typical (sad) strategy of elections. If you can win on name recognition alone, run only on name recognition. Avoid talking about issues because, regardless of the position you take, at least a few people will disagree with you. If you cannot win on name recognition alone, talk about the issues. And, of course, if you cannot win on the issues, run on things that are not the issues.
An incumbent can bury an underfunded challenger in name recognition mailers; glossy generalized promises that alienate no one. This is why challengers historically talk about ideas and incumbents skip debates unless the polling gets close. If a challenger only raises $5,000 the incumbent never has to respond because they can’t say anything loudly enough to affect polling. If the challenger has $25,000 to spend to promote their ideas, the incumbent has to respond.
Third, clean elections are not intended to support aspirations of would-be politicos, it is to support Tempe. I don’t care at all about politicians, but I love Tempe. I like the idea that any resident (even those without friends with disposable income) can run for office and have enough money to challenge an incumbent with questions that are asked loudly enough that they must be answered. Clean elections are intended to get rid of incumbents who are unprepared to defend their voting record from upstarts who ask uncomfortable questions like “why did you cut bulk trash pickup without talking to residents first?”
Fourth, clean elections will likely save Tempe money. The project east of Tempe Marketplace got a million+ dollar tax break. Most developments on the town lake get eight year tax breaks worth millions of dollars. The recent University Drive project got a $21 million tax break just four weeks ago on a 4-3 vote. There are (sometimes) good development reasons for tax breaks, but if just one $21 million tax break doesn’t happen because of clean elections it pays for the entire system for 210 years. Clean elections will cost money on the front end, but save money long term. That saved money can go towards parks, roads, and quality of life services.
Fifth, investigative reporting is dead. I have seen politicians accept a developer check on a Monday and vote on that developer’s project the following Thursday. I have frequently heard politicians say behind closed doors, “I can’t support that, I’ll get killed by________ in the next election.” Here’s the thing, I can’t even fill in the blank with the name of a real special interest group because if I do, I’ll get killed by that group in the next election! I’m afraid to fill in the missing name. The newspapers report none of it, and the challengers don’t have enough money to tell anyone about it on the off chance they find it.
Sixth, all I want is for Tempe residents to decide for themselves in a public vote. I respect the very wise former mayors and elected officials weighing in against this idea based on their experience and history. However, I do not understand them basically telling residents, “don’t let your current elected officials give you a choice.” I understand trying to influence the outcome of a public vote, but it seems odd to try and influence if there should be a vote. I do not fear the will of the people; either for or against clean elections. Whatever the outcome of a public vote, I am happy to respect it.
This proposal isn’t a complete solution. The current clean election proposal should have a better funding source than tickets. Tempe can’t address Citizens United, or the rise of PAC and independent expenditure committee money. Tempe can’t address the absurdly increased individual contribution limits created by the state. Tempe can affect two things. The things that are within the power of a city to change. This proposal (1) makes it so that a challenger has enough money to force an incumbent to answer hard questions, and (2) allows an incumbent to forgo special interest money because there is a viable alternative funding source. And while that isn’t everything wrong with money in politics, it’s something…
The original post on Council Member Granville's Facebook page can be viewed here.