How much do you think a candidate should have to spend to run a competitive campaign for the Asheville City Council — a job that pays $13,800 per year?
Would $10,000 be enough? $20,000? $40,000?
Would it surprise you to know that in 2007, Bill Russell spent approximately $63,000 to win a City Council seat? Russell edged incumbent Bryan Freeborn, who spent about $10,000, by 74 votes. In the end, each of Russell's votes cost approximately $11.30, compared with about $1.90 per vote for Freeborn. Incidentally, most of Russell's campaign contributions came from a single special-interest group: builders, developers and realtors.
In 2001, Charles Worley reportedly spent a whopping $120,000 on his successful push to become mayor of Asheville, barely defeating Brian Peterson 7,936 votes to 7,399. For the record, last year's three victorious City Council candidates averaged less than $25,000 in campaign expenditures; Mayor Terry Bellamy spent just over $33,000 on her re-election bid.
I'm not suggesting that Russell or Worley did anything wrong; certainly nothing unscrupulous or dishonest. They were playing by the same rules as everyone else. And only they can say whether they felt beholden to their biggest contributors. But such large infusions of cash into our local political process endanger the time-honored principle of one person, one vote. To remove the influence of big money and level the playing field, it's time for Asheville to implement publicly financed elections.
In 2007, the N.C. General Assembly named Chapel Hill the pilot city for publicly financed local elections. The Voter Owned Election Program is entirely voluntary; candidates qualify by raising a sizable number of small contributions and agreeing to spending and fundraising limits. Both candidates who qualified for financial support during last fall's municipal election collected more votes than any of the nonparticipating candidates, and the program cost the city less than $1 per resident. Once the state House and Senate pass the necessary legislation, Asheville will have the option of creating a similar program that fits our specific needs.
WNC for Change, a grass-roots group that grew out of Barack Obama's campaign for president, believes the time has come for publicly financed elections in Asheville. Here's why:
1. Big money can unfairly influence the outcome of local elections. By making generous campaign contributions, wealthy donors, corporations, political action committees and special-interest groups with a stake in Asheville City Council decisions can give their chosen candidates an unfair advantage.
2. The high cost of running for office deprives us of more diverse leadership. Many aspiring local leaders decline to run for office because of the rising cost, leaving us with a primarily white, affluent, male, heterosexual City Council that doesn't fully represent our city's population.
3. Council members whose campaigns were publicly financed would be accountable to all Asheville residents. Publicly financed elections ensure that our elected officials are more accountable to their constituents than to special-interest groups making substantial campaign contributions.
4. Voters are more likely to participate in publicly financed elections. When people understand that all qualified candidates have a chance to win and that the election isn't rigged in favor of the affluent or those backed by big money, they're more likely to vote.
In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court removed restrictions on corporate spending to influence elections; nothing now prevents a corporation from spending huge sums of money in an Asheville election in hopes of electing a slate of candidates sympathetic to its interests. But in a Feb. 8 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 80 percent of respondents opposed this decision. And recent focus groups in Charlotte and Denver for the Campaign for Fair Elections and the Public Campaign Action Fund clearly showed that voters across the political spectrum are angry about the problem of special-interest money and want fair elections in which candidates receive small donations from ordinary people.
Act now to curb special interests and create greater accountability
Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, a Tea Party member or a Green, an independent or none of the above, you now have an opportunity to reclaim your power. At the Tuesday, June 8, Asheville City Council meeting, Council member Cecil Bothwell will propose a resolution calling on the General Assembly to enact legislation giving the state's larger towns the power to sponsor public-financing programs — a first step toward publicly financed Asheville elections.
This is a concern for all of us, not just city residents. We must urge Asheville City Council members to support this resolution (see box).
You may hear various justifications for refusing to support publicly financed elections: It would be too expensive, it would penalize candidates who are good at raising money, the system we have works fine, such a program is untested, the state legislation is flawed, etc. But none of these excuses hold up under scrutiny.
It's time for Asheville to join Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, Cary, Wilmington and Greenville, which have already approved similar resolutions. By doing so, we help ensure that "one person, one vote" is not an obsolete expression but a reality in our community.
Asheville resident Bruce Mulkey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is president of WNC for Change (http://wncforchange.com).
Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, a Tea Party member or a Green, an independent or none of the above, you now have an opportunity to reclaim your power.