Gil Cabrera hosted Café: San Diego on Friday.
Saturday, March 3, 2007 | No, I am not going to talk about outsourcing, although I know this title suggests it. Consider this a political reform oriented posting.
Living in San Diego, a city that has seen its fair share of political scandals and less than stellar job performance by public officials, we all have a very real understanding of one of the major problems facing our democracy — a fundamental lack of political accountability. Think of it this way: In our fair city that has been rocked by allegations of scandal, bad management and incompetence for years … not a single elected office holder has been voted out of office in at least 15 years. Why is that? I believe this stems in large part from a lack of competition for most political offices — particularly in our legislatures.
There is a systemic problem causing this lack of competition: how we finance campaigns. Making candidates raise their own money gives those with name recognition and political power (read: incumbents) a huge advantage. What’s more, we expect our public officials to raise money to get elected from the very people we some day expect them to regulate, but that is another discussion. Giving incumbents and well connected people a fundraising advantage equates to a lack of competition for elected office generally because it dissuades others from even attempting to run against them. And even when a new candidate tries to run against an incumbent or well financed candidate, she is hopelessly under-funded, which obviously limits her ability to convey her message to the public. The result: in campaigns today we do not experience a debate of ideas to choose from, but rather a fundraising competition that determines whose voice we will hear.
The only way to fix this problem is to offer some type of public campaign financing. It has to be voluntary and provide enough money for publicly financed candidates to seriously compete. There must also be a balance threshold that will encourage participation without providing public financing to every crazy person that wants to run for office. If a candidate wants to raise money privately, she should be allowed to do so. However, the public should have the choice between a candidate that raises money from private interests and one who is publicly financed. And hopefully, with this change, more people will run for public office increasing our choices and competition. As an added benefit, publicly financed elected officials (or “clean candidates”) can focus their attention on doing their jobs as opposed to raising money; and they will owe their position only to the public.
Three states already provide full public financing of all statewide and legislative candidates: Arizona, Connecticut and Maine. Two major cities do so for all citywide races: Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. I realize our city’s current financial ills make this a difficult policy to contemplate, but we owe it to ourselves to seriously consider whether it is worth the investment here. As a society we believe competition is good in almost every aspect of life. Why not see to it that our politics is as competitive an environment as possible?
Gil Cabrera is a commissioner on the San Diego Ethics Commission. Send him an email here. Or, send a letter to the editor.