Are Publicly Funded Elections Viable in Cambridge?

city councilPhoto by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

City Councilor Nadeem Mazen can still remember representatives of special interest groups approaching him on the street to offer him funding during his 2013 campaign.

“I would have folks who passed me on the street and say, ‘Nadeem it’s election season, I’ve got to give you that max contribution,’” Mazen says.

When he declined, Mazen says they would try to assure him they were his friends.

“These people seek you out,” Mazen says. “They want to keep the relationship lines open, and they want to keep the conversation very productive, and in many cases, very profitable.”

One way to limit the influence of special interest money is publicly financed elections, Mazen argues. He recently supported a petition led by Cambridge Residents for Responsible Elections (CRRE) that sought to place a non-binding question on the November ballot asking residents if they would support using tax dollars to fund political campaigns.

The initiative was effectively killed after Councilor Leland Cheung, who is not seeking reelection, delayed the vote during an August council meeting. CRRE is now waiting on a report from the city manager on the viability of such a plan in Cambridge.

The group points to other communities throughout the country that publicly finance elections as proof that such a program could work.

Seattle provides citizens with publicly funded “democracy vouchers,” according to CRRE’s website. The vouchers are worth $100, and residents can donate them to up to four candidates. New York City and Berkeley, Calif. both match small donations at a certain rate, and in New Haven, Conn. the city provides candidates with a lump sum grant.

Anne Taylor and Zach Epstein helped create CRRE more than a year ago. There are about half a dozen regular participants in the group that range from a former ACLU lawyer to a high school student, they say. The group has also spoken with about 60 to 70 people who have expressed interest in campaign finance reform.

Taylor says she’s interested in campaign finance reform because it impacts every single other issue a politician touches.

“I have found that most issues in society, whether it’s healthcare, affordable housing, real estate development, it all stems from money in politics,” Taylor says. “ The feeling the special interests have influence over our politicians, I think that issue is magnified at the federal level, and I think there are a lot of movements to make change there, but I also think it starts local.”

Taylor says the petition CRRE sent to the council was meant to start a conversation about the possibility of publicly financing elections. The petition itself did not outline how candidates would be eligible for funds or how they would be distributed.

“We’re just citizens, we’re residents,” Taylor says. “We don’t have the expertise to know exactly what model would work best in Cambridge. So that’s why it’s a good thing that the city manager has been asked to look at these models and see what might work and then present it to the public.”

While most of the council has expressed support for publicly financed campaigns, not all of them liked the way the petition was presented.

Cheung says he spent “too much” time raising funds as a candidate, and that it would be better if candidates could devote more of their efforts to talking with residents about what they’d like to accomplish.

But despite his support for the idea of publicly financed campaigns, he says he found the CRRE’s petition offensive. During the September council meeting, he said the language of the petition insinuated that the councilors had been bought by special interest groups.

“Generally, I thought it was incendiary and misrepresentative of what is actually going on and the way people are being represented in Cambridge,” Cheung says.

He also expressed concern about how such a plan would be implemented.

“The devil is in the details,” Cheung says. “The overall sentiment can be good, but the difference between something being good and bad for residents is in the implementation. There are some broader questions that need to be answered, and I think the petition didn’t answer some of the broader questions. We could be raising taxes on people who can’t afford it, because that’s where tax dollars come from.”

He says he’s concerned about how candidates will be able to spend the funds once they get them, and doesn’t want to see taxpayer dollars spent on Uber rides, groceries, drinks with friends, or salaries for candidates’ potentially under-qualified friends. He says he’d also like a better understanding of who would qualify for public funds and who wouldn’t.

“Right now, pretty much anybody can get on the ballot [in Cambridge],” Cheung said. “Do I want my tax dollars being given to a convicted wife beater? No. So that’s a question that needs to be answered.”

Councilor Jan Devereux, who also supports the idea of publicly financed campaigns, says she was surprised when the petition didn’t move forward in August.

“It seemed to me to be about as reasonable and easy an ask to support as any I can think of,” Devereux sys. “So even had I not been somebody who has talked about the need for campaign finance reform and public financing for the entire time I’ve been involved in public office, it would’ve seemed to me a pretty easy thing to support.”

Unlike Mazen, Devereux says she hasn’t been approached too often by special interest groups. Still, she says she has returned several donations she didn’t feel comfortable accepting.

“Recently I did in fact refund a pretty modest $250 donation from a business owner in Harvard Square who also has applied to open a medical marijuana dispensary,” Devereux says.

Although she noted that the donation was made online and wasn’t solicited—and that the council had voted on medical marijuana zoning months earlier—Devereux says she still decided to give it back.

She says she returned a similar donation from a construction labor union. “For appearances’ sake, I don’t need that money,” Devereux says.

While some councilors have been able to avoid accepting special interest money, Mazen says such contributions are still giving some candidates in Cambridge a “clear and unfair advantage.”

“In Cambridge and across the country, there are special interests infuencing elections and making off with incredible, friendly, giveaway legislation,” Mazen says. “Many people think this is just happening at the federal level. No, it is happening in Cambridge [and] it is happening in your city.”

Candidates who reject special interest money could raise $30,000 less than those who accept the funds, according to Mazen. This difference can have a large impact in races that are often won or lost by slim margins. Mazen won his seat in 2013 by six votes.

“The folks who have sworn off special interest money are at a serious disadvantage,” he says.

This story originally appeared in the November/December issue of Scout Cambridge, which is available for free at more than 200 locations throughout the city or by subscription.

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