Op-EdOpinion

WHITE: Bowser Can Give Power to the People With Fair-Elections Funding

Over the past three years, D.C. residents have come together to express support for Fair Elections, a campaign to provide public financing for qualified candidates in local elections. Last month, the Fair Elections Act passed the D.C. Council unanimously. Now, it needs to be funded. Mayor Bowser can lend her voice to the chorus of organizations, community leaders, and residents who want to bring this reform to D.C. by including Fair Elections in her budget proposal.

Dozens of community groups, ANCs, civic associations and more than 80 community leaders from all eight wards have signed on in support of Fair Elections. This bill is good for voters, good for candidates, and good for D.C. as a whole.

Fair Elections would allow candidates for local office to opt in to a program that would require them to forego corporate and PAC contributions, accept low contribution limits and collect a set number of contributions from D.C. residents in order to qualify. In return, they would receive a grant to cover startup costs on their campaign and have all of their contributions from residents matched 5:1. Contribution limits would be set at $50 for Ward Council, $100 for At-Large, $150 for Council Chair and attorney general, and $200 for mayor. The program is estimated to cost less than .05 percent of D.C.’s annual budget.

Research has shown that D.C.’s biggest donors are wealthier, Whiter, and tend to be male, compared to D.C. as a whole and to small donors, who are more likely to be people of color, younger, and tend to be women. A bill that encourages candidates to fundraise from small donors makes our democracy more open and inclusive. We lose out when people decide not to run for office because they don’t have a large enough network of wealthy friends or potential donors.

Right now, if you’re a D.C. resident and you can only afford to give $5, $10 or $20, you might think it’s not worth it to give to a candidate, even if you support or like them. You might feel that people who can afford to contribute might have more access, influence, or ability to make an impact on the campaign. That’s a disempowering feeling, and this bill aims to change that by amplifying your voice.

Under Fair Elections, your $5, $10 or $20 contribution could become $30, $60 or $120. If candidates can no longer raise money from corporations or PACs, they may be more likely to come to your neighborhood or your living room, to sit down and hear about your concerns about housing, education or community safety, even if no one in the room can write a large check.

In places like New York City that have similar programs, the number of small donations to local candidates increased dramatically in racially diverse low-income and working-class neighborhoods. I hope Mayor Bowser will join my colleagues on the Council in supporting and fully funding Fair Elections in the upcoming year, so that the program is up and running by 2020.

Not long ago, I was a candidate running a campaign out of the basement of my home against an entrenched incumbent. Most people doing business with the city would not return my fundraising calls. A few who did let me know that even though they planned to vote for me, they were told they couldn’t donate to my campaign. I didn’t ask for further explanation because I didn’t need it. Nor did I begrudge them because I saw them as casualties of the same pay-to-play system that has held our city back for decades.

Many Black millennials, like myself, lack family wealth that can help us fund viable campaigns. So when incumbent politicians control the flow of donations, they cut out the voices of those who want change and candidates who want to disrupt the status quo. Indeed, public offices become less public when power to effect change is consolidated in a small political class. I believe our city and our residents are better off when officials must win the hearts and minds of the people, not just the pocketbooks of a few.

For the entire year that I ran my campaign, my family lived off just my wife’s income. There were no luxuries like birthday or anniversary gifts, and things that broke around the house had to stay broken. It was a strain that is not realistic for most candidates. Through Fair Elections, we can level the playing field to ensure that our city gets the best representatives. Because the mayor’s budget proposal sets the stage for our final budget, the most realistic way to get it funded is for her to include it in her proposal. I hope that she will. But if she doesn’t, I hope my colleagues on the Council will find a way to do so.

White is an at-large member of the D.C. Council.

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