Buy the people or for the people?

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 ( is president of WNC for Change (
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.


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About Bruce Mulkey
In an earlier incarnation, I was a self-indulgent, hyper-masculine, beer-swilling, shit-kicking, pickup-truck-driving rebel (without much of a cause) who built log houses for a living. Having miraculously survived that era, I am now an open-minded, relentlessly inquisitive, politically progressive, essayist and author residing in the eclectic little city of Asheville, North Carolina. Follow me @brucemulkey

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5 thoughts on “Buy the people or for the people?

  1. J

    Wow, there’s just a bonanza of material here to pick apart.

    1. Bruce was Bothwell’s campaign manager…gee, his campaign manager is writing a letter of support for Cecil’s initiative. That must just be a magnificent coincidence. That might get Bruce in trouble over at ScruHoo for lack of full disclosure. Careful Bruce!
    2. Bruce contradicts himself quite readily throughout the entire letter. The high cost of living deprives us of diverse leadership…odd, he just talked about the low cost of running for the past three winners as compared to Bill Russell. So Gordon, Cecil, and Esther aren’t diverse? Good to know.
    3. Apparently if and only if you have publicly financed elections do you get accountable council members. Otherwise, only the donors get to vote. The whole Let Asheville Vote phenomenon must have just been a donor organized movement. Silly me, I mistook it for voters taking accountability into their own hands.
    4. Spending endangers our right to one person one vote. How much do I have to give to vote twice?
    5. Yeah, the City’s not broke at all. We can totally pay for just one more thing (after the sidewalks, bike lanes, green ways, greening, new buses, bus advertising…)
    6. Pg 218 of the Campaign Finance Manual provided by the SBOE says no corporate money can be used for election engineering. Bruce says nothing prevents corporate dominance of electioneering…not even that pesky SBOE that says corporate contributions not allowed. Sorry Bruce, I’m with the state on this one. Did you bother to research this before you wrote it?
    7. Voters are more likely to participate in publicly financed elections? Seriously? Bruce doesn’t offer any justification for this because there is none he can give. There’s a difference between being the high vote getters in the CH example and more people voting overall. As a matter of fact, I think the exact opposite is true. Obama shunned the public financing option, and 2008 was the highest voter turnout in the nation’s history. All of his money allowed him to put states like IN, VA, and NC in play – which are normally not in play for the dems. Heck, the man even started out targeting Alaska because of all his resources. He couldn’t have done that with public financing.

    As Bothwell’s campaign manager, I thought Bruce would be very familiar with how effective that grass roots campaigning was. Maybe it wasn’t so grass roots after all.

  2. Bruce Mulkey

    Well, J, I don’t know where to start since your comment is so filled with false accusations and blatant inaccuracies. I’m certainly not going to take the time to rebut all of them, however, I will say this: I thoroughly researched everything in my op-ed and provided the Mountain Xpress with documentation of every fact in it, documentation that their staff reviewed prior to publication.

    One falsehood I will correct: I have never served as Cecil Bothwell’s campaign manager but was instead a volunteer in his campaign, primarily helping with communications. Regardless, I would be supporting public financing of local campaigns no matter which Council member presented the resolution in favor of it. I do this in my role as the president of WNC for Change as sanctioned by the WNC for Change board, who recently voted unanimously to support Bothwell’s resolution, and on behalf of the 900+ citizens who make up our organization and who comprised the core of the Obama 2008 campaign volunteers in Asheville and Buncombe County.

  3. J


    Sorry for the confusion about your position on the Bothwell campaign.

    You’re not rebutting my post because you can’t. Too bad you’re going to deprive us all of a nice, in depth converation on the merits, or lack thereof, for public financing. Have a good one.

  4. zulu

    I think it’s amusing that Bruce Mulkey, who is president of Western North Carolina for Change, is extolling the virtues of public financing. WNC for Change is a spin-off of the Obama campaign, which promised to participate in public financing before playing McCain like a sucker and backing out, leaving Obama free to rake in millions and millions, claiming that it was from “small” donors”. But since he didn’t take public financing, Obama’s campaign wasn’t troubled with the silly details of actually providing documentation of where all that money came from. But we can tell from Obama’s actions that it truly is “the little people” he cares about, right? Sorry– I didn’t hear you- Right?

    Mulkey is a progressive hack who fancies himself a political operative. He worked on Patsy Keever’s campaign and wrote some of the most pathetic ads I’ve ever seen. Patsy herself had to rewrite them.

    Bothwell, Mulkey and company are doing us a favor. They are pushing the empty-headed hipster thing in Asheville to its final act. It’s more obvious every day that they are waaaaaay in over their heads.

  5. Months after “Buy the people or for the people?” was published, I’m back to create a link from my website to my op-ed. And in doing so, I discovered zulu’s amusing comment.

    I never cease to be amazed by anonymous commenters who seem to think they can bolster their own sagging self-regard by vilifying another. It’s called projection—avoiding the discomfort of consciously admitting one’s own personal faults by redirecting those same faults onto someone else. Good luck with that, zulu. :-)

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