The money game

“We are on the path of separating politics from the people. … We are failing as a society, because we’re creating an elitist government.”

That declaration by former Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick set the tone for a recent breakfast forum organized by the League of Women Voters on the topic of campaign-finance reform. The League, reports Buncombe chapter President Nelda Holder, has joined a local coalition called Citizens for Campaign Finance Reform. Along with Sitnick, the forum featured Asheville Mayor Charles Worley and former Mayor Russ Martin.

Consider the trend.

In 1987, it cost Martin about $10,000 to make his first run for a seat on City Council … back when “nobody knew who I was,” he told forum attendees. His successful bid for the mayor’s seat in 1993 set him back about $15,000, much of it for such items as print and TV ads, he mentioned.

Sitnick spent about $50,000 on her 1998 campaign.

And last year, Worley spent about $123,000 on his successful bid for mayor. Compare that to 1991, when he spent a mere $5,000 on his City Council bid. “The bulk of my expenses [last year] was [for] TV [ads],” he explained. “The cost of running an ad on TV has escalated in the last 10 years.”

The high cost of campaigning — and especially for posts that pay less than $20,000 a year — makes it almost impossible for the average citizen to serve as an elected official in Asheville, Sitnick argued. She emphasized that if one doesn’t have a wealthy spouse, isn’t independently wealthy, isn’t a lawyer/doctor with a healthy practice, or doesn’t have a significant retirement fund to live on, “You can’t afford to serve” in elected office.

“The situation today means that many people feel disenfranchised,” she continued. “Ego plus turf equals politics. Mix in power and partisanship and throw in money — and you have an outcome that can’t help but be tainted,” she declared.

But neither Sitnick, Martin nor Worley had any easy answers on how to slash the skyrocketing cost of campaigning. And coaliton organizer Mickey Mahaffey chided Worley for appearing to drag his feet on appointing a citizens’ committee to consider the issue.

“The thing that levels the playing field is our own integrity,” Mahaffey (who ran a grassroots campaign for mayor in the last election) told Worley.

On March 5, Asheville City Council members had authorized Worley to appoint a Council subcommittee to consider what the proposed citizens’ committee would be charged with doing, how many members it would have, and how those members would be selected, Mahaffey mentioned. But as of the morning of the March 21 League forum, there’d been no word on when (or if) those appointments would be made. “How soon will [Council] appoint a citizens’ committee, and who’s on the Council [sub]committee?” asked Mahaffey, adding, “A number of people want change.”

Worley replied that he had just appointed Council members Brian Peterson and Carl Mumpower and Vice Mayor Terry Bellamy to serve on that subcommittee (see “Just the Facts” elsewhere in this issue for the latest on the subcommittee’s work).

As for the issue of campaign-finance reform, Worley suggested that candidates be asked to voluntarily submit to spending limits. (Who would set those limits has not been determined, though it could be a job for the citizens’ committee.) Worley also proposed that candidates be allowed free air time on the local government and/or public-access channels as a viable alternative to costly TV ads.

Martin made reference to what he called “moral-suasion”: Hold candidates accountable (with the help of watchdog groups) for how much they spend and for any negative campaign tactics they use. The bottom line: “Don’t support those who don’t live by [spending] limitations.” As long as those approaches work (i.e., win elections), candidates will continue to use them, argued Martin. “Until the public rises up [and says] something about it, nothing will change,” he said.

Speaking of the public, observed Worley — despite the many excellent forums held locally during election season — few voters seem to make the effort to attend them and learn about the candidates. That voter apathy, he noted, makes it even more crucial that candidates get their names out via television and other mass media. The downside of TV ads, however, is that candidates’ views are pared down to “30-second sound bites,” he pointed out.

“People are apathetic,” Sitnick agreed, though she hammered on the influence of political action committees (Council members Worley, Mumpower, Joe Dunn and Jim Ellis — who collectively constitute a voting majority — all received significant funding from the PAC Citizens for New Leadership). “The people have responsibility, but we have abdicated it,” Sitnick declared.

Martin, who won his first City Council race by a mere 18 votes, concluded the meeting with a call to action, declaring, “One vote does matter.

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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