Campaign-Finance Reform Should be Priority

By Susan Lerner, Commentary

Whether you are James Hahn or Antonio Villaraigosa, one issue has bedeviled your campaign: money. Specifically, the campaign contributions necessary to run for office. Special-interest money is pouring into the Los Angeles mayoral race at unprecedented levels. Unfortunately, the most commonly suggested solutions -- tightening up ethics rules and beefing up enforcement -- don't go nearly far enough.

Mayor Hahn lost all the advantages of incumbency when questions were raised about pay-to-play campaign contributions from companies seeking contracts at Los Angeles International Airport and with the city. These questions wiped away what should have been solid advantages -- the appointment of a popular police chief, falling crime and the successful fight against Valley secession.

Challenger and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa's front-runner status has been jeopardized by a late accusation involving out-of-state contributors whose interest lies in -- you guessed it -- obtaining contracts at LAX.

Nothing could make the need for serious campaign-finance reform more obvious. Incredibly, questions like traffic, the state of the city's schools, the unavailability of affordable housing and the number of police officers on the street have faded into the background. Even personality, which supposedly trumps everything in American elections, has been obscured. This entire mayoral race has devolved into one question: Who took how much from whom?

In fact, neither Hahn nor Villaraigosa is to blame for this mess. Under Los Angeles' current system of providing a one-to-one match in partial public funding of campaigns, any candidate for mayor still needs to raise fantastical sums. The only people who have a reason to give that much are those doing business with, or who want something from, the city.

The entanglements of campaign contributions are indeed so twisted and thorny that they appear to be a modern equivalent of the legendary Gordian Knot. And, just as Alexander the Great realized that there was no way to pull one strand of that knot to undo the mess, so we need a single swift stroke of the sword to convince voters that campaign contributors have been separated from the paybacks they may expect from the officials they help elect.

That is exactly what Clean Money -- full public financing of local elections -- would accomplish. A campaign-funding system already working well in Arizona and Maine, Clean Money provides public funds to qualified candidates who opt for public funding so they can run viable campaigns without being millionaires or raising huge amounts of money from potentially questionable sources. When candidates voluntarily accept Clean Money funds, they can't take any money from private contributors. The public is thus ensured that the candidates running for office are accountable only to the voters, since the public pays for their campaigns, not companies or individuals who want city contracts.

If this had been a Clean Money campaign, Hahn would have had to run on his record and Villaraigosa on his ideas. We would be discussing which man's vision and ability are best suited to Los Angeles, rather than being spectators at a mudslinging match over campaign contributions.

Transformation of Los Angeles' partial public funding of elections to a full Clean Money system would finally allow us to do what L.A.'s voters hoped the matching-fund system they adopted in 1990 would accomplish: Yank the "for sale" sign from City Hall and vote in the best candidate for mayor.

Susan Lerner is the executive director of the California Clean Money Campaign,

See the article on Los Angeles Daily News website

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