In a move that could put Washington, D.C., in the company of Portland and Seattle, among other cities, the capital’s council Tuesday unanimously backed a publicly financed campaign system.
The new system, which would be voluntary, would allow candidates to receive a base sum varying by office — with a maximum of $160,000 for mayoral hopefuls and a 5-to-1 match on small donations, the Washington Post reports. It would cost taxpayers an average of about $5 million per year and be up and running, at the earliest, in 2020. It’s not a sure thing yet (the council will need to approve it with a final vote next month) but their unanimous support bodes well for backers of campaign finance reform.
Those backers believe the program will open the city’s offices to new candidates and increase the power of small donors while limiting the power of developers and corporate funders. But Mayor Muriel Bowser is reportedly not one of them, and claims the system will waste much-needed dollars. According to the Post, she’s said she will not fund the program, but the council (the body responsible for approving the city’s annual budget) can allocate money to pay for it anyway. The budget currently sits at about $13.8 billion, so supporters see $5 million as a relative drop in the annual bucket.
“Yes, we absolutely have other funding needs, but I also believe the District can walk and chew gum at the same time, just like all the other jurisdictions,” Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) has said, according to the paper.
Bowser, who is running for her second mayoral term in 2018, has raised upwards of $1.4 million since September, the Post reports. She currently has no prominent challengers and is on track “to meet or exceed her 2014 total of approximately $3.6 million in contributions,” according to the paper.
Portland and Seattle both made bids to clean up their city elections in 2016, as Next City reported at the time. In December of that year, Portland’s City Council approved an initiative similar to D.C.’s, which promised to match residents’ small contributions 6 to 1. Seattle, meanwhile, promised to experiment with “democracy vouchers.” Under that program (which has seen mixed results) each adult resident receives four vouchers worth $25 that they can give to any local candidate of their choice.
Leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles both proposed finance reform strategies aimed at developers last year as well, although neither was particularly successful. One Los Angeles effort looked a lot like a long-shot bid to unseat Mayor Eric Garcetti, and the San Francisco proposal was aimed solely at affordable housing developers, and simply didn’t gather much support.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.