By John Clayton
There is broad general support for a public campaign financing system for Montgomery County Council and County Executive candidates. This discussion was triggered by a bill sponsored by Councilman and recent candidate for County Executive, Phil Andrews.
The new law would make Montgomery County the first jurisdiction in Maryland to have such a law, and according to Andrews, the “first of its kind in the nation with the particular parameters proposed.” Some of these parameters for participation would require that candidates raise a certain amount of money from a number of small donors, as opposed to large contributions from the few. This is the crux of the effort. For years, the criticism of local elections, and specifically county council and executive elections, is that they are driven by large contributions from developers and unions. Public sector unions, including teachers’ unions, are frequently highlighted.
The question remains: Does the fact that a candidate accepts large donations from a person or an organization necessarily mean that the resulting elected official is unduly influenced by the source of his campaign funds? This question has certainly been asked for as long as we’ve had representative democracies, and I suppose longer, since the well-heeled have probably handpicked their public officials for as long as we’ve had public officials. However, we should not be too quick to damn those that accept large donations. It is a simple fact of political life, even in Montgomery County, that if you want to run for office, you have to raise a lot of money, or spend your own if you have it, and it would be an insult to our elected officials to suggest that a quid quo pro necessarily result. Then again, even the most honest and forthright elected official is probably going to take the big contributor’s telephone call before he/she takes one of ours, and s/he’ll probably talk longer, too.
There is so much support for this initiative that many of the same things have been said over and over about the benefits of public campaign financing. These include lowering the bar for entry into political races, and, as mentioned above, limiting undue influence by the few, and a consequent increase of regard for the many, who would also like to wield a little clout beyond their vote. Elected officials at all levels despair over the incredible amounts of time and energy dedicated to the nonstop fundraising necessary to feed the hungry beast of election. Some candidates are above this, being wealthy enough to fund their campaigns, but that shouldn’t be a basic qualification for running. There has to be an effort to level the playing field.
Where even the best-intentioned campaign financing proposal runs into a wall is on the issue of campaign limits. Right now, there are essentially no limits, as the Supreme Court has upheld that campaign spending is a form of free speech, and should not be controlled or parceled out by the government. However, without limits, a huge disparity may remain between those who accept public financing and those who have the means, from whatever source, to spend without limits. Lowering the bar for entry solves part of the problem, but other problems persist.
The Phil Andrews plan is a great idea, and it doesn’t have to be perfect to begin making the process for getting elected to county office fairer and more accessible. This may or may not be a model for the rest of the country, but it can certainly help us here in Montgomery County.