He or she could have an Ivy League degree, an admirable history of public service and a Colgate smile. Still, even the most qualified and ambitious politician usually can't get very far without cash, and lots of it. But where that money comes from, and the influence that accompanies it, has long troubled voters and political watchdogs.
With a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns, advocates of campaign finance reform say few moments have been more timely to rein in the power of big money in politics. They're pushing for the state Senate to pass a bill this summer that would allow cities to use tax dollars to pay for political candidates' campaigns. Under the program, candidates could voluntarily opt into public campaign financing or choose the traditional method of private fundraising.
"We think there's an opportunity here for the Legislature to send a strong message to the public with the parade of ethical problems in Raleigh and this extremely troubling [Supreme Court] decision," said Josh Glasser, a coordinator for the North Carolina branch of Common Cause, a nonpartisan lobbying organization.
Elected leaders in Greenville, Wilmington and Raleigh have recently vowed to support the bill, which passed the N.C. House of Representatives last year. Town leaders in Cary are also discussing the issue, and at a meeting April 5, the Durham City Council is slated to pass its own resolution supporting the bill.
"The part that I don't like about elections is the whole issue of raising money, and the perception that it gives—no matter how much they give—of intentions or expectations once those contributions have been made," Durham Mayor Bill Bell said. Facing his first major challenger in years, Bell spent $52,000 campaigning against Republican City Councilman Thomas Stith in the 2007 mayoral race. Stith spent nearly $200,000. When Bell was elected to his fifth term last fall, he spent only $4,000 campaigning against opponent Steven Williams, who spent less than $1,000, according to election records.
Bell and other Durham City Council members note that the resolution merely asks that cities have the option to hold publicly funded elections. To actually enact such a program in Durham, elected leaders would have to wait for legislative approval, then get public input and discuss the fiscal implications, Bell said. The proposed legislation, called the Public Municipal Campaigns bill, would allow the state's most populous cities (see list) to give political candidates an equal lump sum of tax dollars to pay for ads, mailers, signs and other campaign costs. In contrast to traditional campaigns, a publicly financed election requires a candidate to gather hundreds of small donations—up to $20 per person—to qualify for public funds. Once a candidate can show the required level of support, he or she receives the money from the city. Any money that isn't used must be returned.
Chapel Hill is the only municipality in the state to have such a program. The town enacted its Voter-Owned Elections pilot program last year through special legislation and budgeted $50,000 to finance elections in 2009 and 2011. In November's municipal races, candidates for Chapel Hill mayor and town council had the option of raising their own funds or accepting public money. Candidates for two offices chose to participate in the Voter-Owned Election, including newly sworn Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt. (Council candidate Penny Rich was the other.) Kleinschmidt spent $18,000 on his campaign, of which $9,000 came from the city's public election fund after he collected the requisite 150 small-dollar contributions. (Kleinschmidt also qualified for an additional $4,000 in public "rescue funds" once his opponent Matt Czajkowski raised $21,000. The emergency money is available to publicly funded candidates if their opponents' fundraising exceeds a certain level.) Czajkowski, who raised campaign funds the traditional way, spent $36,000.
Advocates say publicly funded campaigns limit the influence of special interest groups, encourage voter participation and even encourage candidates who lack the money to run for office.
"I think when people contribute, they may feel more strongly about the outcome," Durham City Councilwoman Diane Catotti said. "Limiting big dollars can help the little guy."
Others say the program favors incumbents, who already get free publicity through their work, and that tax-funded campaigns are a misuse of public money during tough times.
"Why should a senior citizen on a fixed income pay money to their town in order for a half dozen folks to buy nail files and yard signs and stick 'em up all over the place?" said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican from Wake County who spent $113,000 to win his third term in 2008 and $142,000 in his 2006 campaign. "How is that making a difference?"
Dollar also said campaign reserves in local elections "in many instances have nothing to do with who actually wins the election. It's more about whether the candidate is connecting with where the community's interests lie and can build grassroots support."
State Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Wake County and vice chairman of a Senate Judiciary Committee, said it's too early to tell whether the Senate will address the pending bill during this summer's short session. But the timing would be apropos, Stein said, considering the U.S. Supreme Court ruling and recent accusations against state and national leaders of misusing campaign funds.
In addition to the Public Municipal Campaigns bill, lawmakers could consider a number of proposals this summer that address campaign ethics and could rebuild public confidence, Stein said.
"Hopefully, we'll have a very strong package that will encourage citizens that their government is doing what they should do for the public interest and not their individual interests," Stein said.