Campaign funding bill will open doors to the non-rich
When Sonia Sotomayor takes her seat on the Supreme Court this fall, she will do more than make history as our country's first Latina Supreme Court justice. She will also inspire millions of young Latinos who, because of her achievement, can now see limitless opportunity for themselves.
For every young person who has struggled in school because of a language barrier, who has suffered from the stigma of living in public housing, or whose parents couldn't afford new clothes at the beginning of school, Justice Sotomayor's shining example offers them proof that hard work pays off. It opens the doors for young people of all backgrounds to dream of walking proudly across the stage wearing the robes of a college graduate, or possibly even one day donning the robes of a Supreme Court justice themselves.
As a Latina who was first elected to public office more than 25 years ago, I am proud to see how far we have come in my lifetime and reminded of how far we have to go. In the 160 years of California's history, just one Latino has been elected to statewide office, and we've yet to have a female governor. Despite the fact that women are CEOs of some of the nation's largest corporations and Latinos now serve on the Supreme Court and in the Presidents' cabinet, the highest elected offices in California are still off-limits to Latinas.
There's a simple reason: Money.
It's unfortunate, but true: financial barriers have kept too many Latinos, and particularly women, from serving in elected office. Our current election system requires candidates to have personal wealth or access to networks of wealthy private donors in order to run a winning campaign. Too often, this means campaigns are won by the person with the most money rather than the most qualified candidate.
That's why I'm supporting the California Fair Elections Act, which will appear on the June 2010 ballot.
Written by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland), and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the act would establish a voluntary pilot project for California's secretary of state races in 2014 and 2018. Candidates will be allowed to qualify for public financing if they agree to strict spending prohibitions and raise a large number of $5 contributions from Californians. If established, this pilot program would be funded primarily by fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbyist employers - no taxpayer dollars will go to candidates.
Under a fair election system, candidates from any background who show a broad base of support can run for office. In Arizona and Maine, which offer candidates the choice of public financing, fair elections have allowed more people of color to run for office. In Arizona, the number of Latino and Native Americans running for office nearly tripled in the first year Fair Elections went into effect, from 13 in 2000 to 37 in 2002.
Of course, it's not just our elected officials' backgrounds that matter; it's also the decisions they make in office. In the seven states and two cities that have adopted a form of the Fair Elections Act, elected officials are free to make decisions that benefit the public without being beholden to interest groups that funded their campaigns.
While I was fortunate to succeed in four legislative races under the current system, I also know that challenges in raising money too often keep talented candidates from being elected. The California Fair Elections Act represents the change voters want and the reform our state needs to ensure Latinos are fairly represented.
As a wise Latina on New York City's Campaign Finance Board named Sonia Sotomayor said, "The public must demand a change in the role of private money."
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