Campaign Finance Reform in Akron: Issue 10 to Draw Line Between Public and Private Funding

Bill Rice- The Akron Clean Money Campaign, or what critics in city government sarcastically call the easy money campaign, is spearheaded by Werner Lang, an Akron minister who's been pushing for campaign finance reform in that city for several years. Lang says a recent study conducted by the campaign strongly suggests political favoritism in Akron. The study looked at cost overruns on four major city projects - specifically, the amounts of overruns on the part of contractors who made large political contributions vs. contractors who didn't.

Werner Lang- And we found there was a very statistically significant correlation between large donors - those that have contributed $1,000 or more to city officials - and the cost overruns of the projects into the millions of dollars.

BR- Lang says overruns averaged 87.5% of the original contract amount among donors who were large political contributors, compared with only 5.2% among non-donors.

WL- It was first our hypothesis that there may have been a correlation, and that correlation was confirmed, and it was our conclusion that there was institutionalized favoritism among public officials, that they favor donating contractors and do not favor the others.

BR- Lang says there's no way to prove the cost overruns were in fact the result of political favors. But he says the evidence was sufficient to convince the required ten percent of Akron's registered voters to sign a petition to put the measure on the ballot. If it's passed, any candidate for city office who collects enough signatures endorsing their candidacy - and who shuns private donations - would be eligible for funding from the city coffers.

WL- Private money, soft money, hard money, all these campaign donations are completely out of the picture because it would be illegal for you as a clean money candidate to accept any private money, any PAC money, any soft money, any money from any party, you can't even spend your own money on your campaign.

BR- Critics of the "Clean Money" statute tend to be sitting politicians, Lang says, since they are the primary beneficiaries of private donations. Indeed, several Akron council members do oppose the measure. But not for that reason, says democratic councilman John Conti.

John Conti- Anyone can go out and acquire a certain number of signatures, which I believe is if you run for mayor you need 2,500 signatures, and then you're entitled to $50,000.

BR- Conti says his main complaint with the statute is that there are no strings attached to the money, as long as you use it to run a campaign.

JC- So in theory someone could go out and get 2,500 signatures which is valued at $20 per signature, and hire a relative or friend or whoever to run their campaign and pay them, say, $45,000, and then only spend $5,000 to make a token effort at running for office.

BR- Conti says he and most elected officials are in favor of some kind of campaign finance reform. But asked what kind of reform might be workable, he said he hadn't thought the issue through, and that campaign reforms should probably take place at the national level rather than the local level.

But Conti's criticism of fully publicly-funded campaigns is understandable, says Deborah Goldberg, deputy director of the Democracy Project at NYU Law School's Brennan Center for Justice.

Deborah Goldberg- There's a potential for a clean money system to bring in candidates who don't really have a chance of winning, or aren't really serious candidates.

BR- The Brennan Center works on behalf of groups like Lang's, reviewing campaign finance proposals to gage their chances of withstanding legal challenges. Goldberg compares the Akron proposal to New York's system of partial public funding of campaigns, where private contributions are matched by public dollars. She says that has a potential advantage over full public financing.

DG- The advantage of a matching system is that, to the extent that you believe that fundraising is some barometer of public support, the amount of money you raise is then going to be tagged to the actual support in the jurisdiction that you're running in.

BR- Goldberg says it's not so clear that the same correlation exists in a full public financing system. But, she says, full public financing has advantages too, one of which benefits incumbents - it eliminates the constant quest for contributions, which can be a big distraction for officeholders, especially on the national level.

DG- So it frees up the candidates completely from those burdens to spend more time on the issues, more time, if they're an incumbent, on delivering services to their constituents.

BR- According to the group Public Campaign, which tracks reform initiatives around the country, no U.S. city has full public financing for candidates. Such funding methods have been passed in four states - Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont and Arizona. Maine's is the only one to be fully implemented. How well it works will become more evident after its first trial run is completed with the November election. Bill Rice, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.

Support Provided By