Four years ago, Democrat Wayne Goodwin was running for state labor commissioner, and his campaign consisted mainly of long days trapped in a cubicle with a telephone, as he called everyone he knew and asked for contributions. Campaigns, he decided, were "like a modern-day Frankenstein's monster, scaring the villagers and candidates alike" with their insatiable demands for money. On top of which, after raising $303,000, he lost anyway to Republican Cherie Berry.
Talk about fortune smiling. Goodwin signed on as Insurance Commissioner Jim Long's top assistant, and when Long decided not to run for re-election this year, Goodwin got into the race to replace him—but not into the cubicle. Because for the first time in '08, a voluntary system of public financing is available to candidates for three of the Council of State offices, including insurance commissioner.
It's a pilot program—no guarantee the General Assembly will extend it beyond this year—and it's a limited one at that: Only the elections for auditor and superintendent of public instruction are included, in addition to insurance commissioner, and it's only for the general elections, not the primaries.
Still, Goodwin feels like "the shackles have been loosened" for him, and he can campaign the old-timey way, "drinking RC Colas at the county courthouse." Seriously, he says, with public funding in prospect for the fall should he win his primary, he won't have to put the arm on the insurance companies his department regulates—the only folks interested in giving big money to a campaign for insurance commissioner.
Goodwin and his opponent in the Democratic primary, Raleigh lawyer David C. Smith, both signed up for the public-financing option, as did the one Republican candidate, former Raleigh City Councilor John Odom.
In the auditor's race, incumbent Republican Les Merritt also opted for public financing (he has no primary opposition), and so did the two Democrats, former Deputy Corrections Secretary Fred Aikens and Beth Wood, a career professional in the auditor's office who resigned so she could challenge Merritt.
Wood and Aikens both say they wouldn't have run if it weren't for the public-funding option.
Only in the superintendent of public instruction race is there a division. The two Democratic candidates, incumbent June Atkinson and challenger Eddie Davis, a longtime teachers association leader, both want the public money; two of the three Republicans, former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan and Joe Johnson, don't. The third, Eric H. Smith, signed onto the program.
Here's the difference. Under the public-funding system, candidates must qualify by raising $29,000 from a minimum of 750 donors who contribute at least $10 each and no more than $200. In addition, they can spend just $1,000 of their own money. After that, they must cease private fundraising, and in return, they receive sums from the state equal to the average of what the major-party candidates spent in their races the last two times out, but at least $300,000 per candidate.
That means the Democratic and Republican candidates for auditor and school superintendent will each receive $300,000, according to Chase Foster, coordinator of N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, a nonprofit advocacy group that lobbied for the pilot program. The Democratic and Republican nominees for insurance commissioner will receive about $380,000 each.
Candidates not choosing public funding can raise money the usual way, in amounts up to $4,000 from individual contributors, and are unlimited in how much of their own money they can spend.
The Council of State pilot is an add-on to the previously established public-financing program for statewide judicial candidates, which differs somewhat in its rules (for example, qualifying contributions can be as much as $500) but is generally similar.
The judicial races—for state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals seats—are nonpartisan; this year, at least 13 of the 16 candidates are opting into the public system, Foster says, and are soliciting qualifying donors in pursuit of state funding amounting to $233,600 for Supreme Court candidates and $160,000 for appeals court candidates.
Public financing is catching on in North Carolina slowly but surely, as voters realize the price they're paying if campaigns are financed by the wealthy and special-interest donors, Foster says.
"We see more grassroots campaigning, and more small-donor support, more access to running for office for non-wealthy candidates, and substantially less fundraising reliance on the industries these offices regulate and do business with," he says.
It's too bad the rest of the Council of State elections aren't covered, especially the governor's race, he adds.
Nor, for that matter, is the labor commissioner's race included, since the General Assembly didn't want to force any unwilling incumbents into publicly funded races, and Labor Commissioner Berry was unwilling.
Thus, when Mary Fant Donnan, one of the four Democrats vying to run against Berry, stopped by at the Young Democrats of N.C. convention a week ago, she said that her campaign this year is a lot like Goodwin's four years ago. Most of her time is spent fundraising, she said, so she can pay for mailings that will tell the voters who she is—including, among other things, a top aide to ex-Labor Commissioner Harry Payne.
Otherwise, she asks, how will they know? "It makes me even more convinced that we need public financing of campaigns," Donnan says.
Most of the candidates who opted for public funding have yet to hit their mark of 750 supporting donors, Foster says. The deadline is May 6. For a list of the candidates still needing your $10 check, see www.ncvce.org.