Take the fundraising out of elections

By Trent Lange, Commentary

There are lots of lessons to be drawn from Gavin Newsom's exit from the gubernatorial race, but one of the more instructive ones is how significant a role money plays in determining how much choice voters have.

As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom made his mark with new policies and executive initiatives. He certainly had the name recognition and credentials to be a respectable candidate. But eight months before the Democratic primary, Newsom dropped his bid for governor - not for lack of desire or ideas, but for lack of money.

Meanwhile, his would-be opponent, Jerry Brown, raised eight times more money than Newsom, even though he's yet to formally declare his candidacy. Every other qualified Democrat has looked at the daunting fundraising task and decided they don't stand a chance against the amount of money Brown will raise.

On the Republican side, only two candidates are thought to have a viable shot at their party's nomination, mainly because their personal wealth will allow them to spend hundreds of millions on their own campaign. Tom Campbell, widely acknowledged to be one of the most qualified gubernatorial candidates, is just as widely acknowledged to not have a shot because of his lack of money. Yet Meg Whitman, despite scant political experience and a slim voting record, has bought her way into a viable candidacy by spending an unprecedented $19 million on her campaign, and predicted spending as much as $150 million before November 2010.

Without a Democratic primary and a slim diversity of candidates on the Republican side, voters won't get the robust discussion and debate our democracy requires. This is a big departure from when Brown ran in 1974, when races were less expensive and five Democrats were making respectable runs for governor.

Incidentally, the Democratic candidates' placement in the polls was directly related to the amount of money they raised.

All this points to the pay-to-play role of money in our political process - a process voters are clamoring to change. In a recent statewide survey, nearly three in four voters said we need to change the way election campaigns are financed in California.

In a system where money equals political legitimacy, elections are no longer about issues and polices that affect voters. Even if you accept long hours working phones, playing rounds of golf, and schmoozing with donors as the price of entry into office, the price continues after

Election Day. Candidates get to repeat the process all over again come re-election time, meaning fundraising continues to eat up a large chunk of their time in office with little real work getting done. All of this begs the question: Who are we left with in office, the candidate with the best policies and the most talent, or the best fundraiser?

Since 2000, over $1 billion dollars has been raised by California politicians. All this fundraising buys access for the special interests, but shuts out the rest of us. We need to change the way we finance election campaigns so politicians focus on the job we sent them to accomplish. That's why we need to pass the California Fair Elections Act on the June 2010 ballot.

Authored by Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the measure asks voters to establish a voluntary pilot project for California's secretary of state races in 2014 and 2019, allowing candidates to qualify for public financing of their campaigns. Participating candidates must follow strict reporting requirements and can only spend on legitimate campaign expenses. Violators would face fines, possible jail time, and prohibitions from running for office in the future. Candidates who show broad support and agree to strict spending limits would receive enough funding to run competitive campaigns - assuring voters that they'll get a choice at the polls.

We have many serious problems to fix in California, from our schools to unemployment to our health care system, but our politicians spend too much time in fundraisers and not enough time doing their jobs.

At a time when nearly four out of five registered voters believe our state is heading in the wrong direction, it's more important than ever that we change the status quo in Sacramento and elect leaders based on the strength of their ideas, not the depth of their war chests.

To reform the system, we have to start from the bottom up, beginning with how we elect our officials. By enacting the California Fair Elections Act, we can take an important step in that direction.

Trent Lange is the chairman of Californians for Fair Elections.

See the article on San Gabriel Valley Tribune website

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