Call it a change of heart or a sudden dash of political savvy — either way, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed a bill Tuesday to create a public financing program for local campaigns. The mayor, who voiced opposition to such a program in January (and said she wouldn’t fund it), now says she will fund it in her upcoming budget.
Bowser tweeted an explanation when she signed the bill.
Over the past few weeks at budget engagement forums and community meetings across the District, residents have shown up to share their belief that the #FairElectionsDC Act would strengthen our democracy. I have heard them and I have been moved by their passion. pic.twitter.com/ZU0KVWUr6q— Mayor Muriel Bowser (@MayorBowser) March 13, 2018
As Next City has covered, the program will 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. It will cost taxpayers an average of about $5 million per year and be up and running, at the earliest, in 2020.
In January, Bowser claimed the program would waste funds needed elsewhere. Her about-face may, indeed be inspired by residents’ passion. But as WAMU points out, it could also help Bowser in her campaign for a second term by addressing widely held concerns that “wealthy political donors hold more sway in the Wilson Building than regular voters.”
Regardless, Bower’s announcement will smooth the way for the program — which already had the full backing of the council. And it will allow D.C. to join Portland and Seattle, which both enacted finance reform programs in 2016. Portland’s initiative is similar to the one D.C. is proposing, promising to match residents’ small contributions 6-to-1. Seattle, meanwhile, has been experimenting (with mixed results) with a “democracy voucher” system, in which each adult resident receives four vouchers worth $25 that they can give to any local candidate of their choice.
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