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In our politics, money is a necessary component of any campaign. A wannabe elected official needs money to communicate her message to the voters effectively enough to get elected. In our fast paced, information-rich society, money is perhaps more important than ever because candidates must break through the noise of everyday life to convey their campaign messages.
This modern reality has elevated money to one of the most powerful indicia of influence in politics. Like happiness, money does not guarantee influence, but it sure does help a donor pretty far down the path.
Since the mid-70s and the fallout of Watergate, governments (San Diego included) have limited the amount of money individuals and organizations can give directly to candidates. The theory underlying these limits is that a contributor who provides a high percentage of an individual candidate’s campaign war chest will likely have a big seat at the policy table if that candidate is elected. And even if that donor does not have actual influence, the fact of large contributions creates an appearance of influence that undermines public confidence in the democratic process.
Now, I will agree that the system is not working quite right, particularly here in San Diego. Our limits, $270 for council races and $320 for citywide races, appear to be too low to allow candidates to effectively raise money without heavy reliance on political parties or other organizations to pick up the slack through member communications or independent expenditures.
The apparent result is the rise of party/organizational influence in supposedly non-partisan city elections. Party and organizational endorsements become critical and while we do not allow organizational contributions directly to candidates, organizations end up having the most influence.
My esteemed debating partner today believes we should have no limits on local campaign contributions and near-instant disclosure. The theory is you “let the sunshine in” and presumably let the voters decide whether they are troubled that 75 percent of a candidate’s funding comes from two individuals.
While I agree with the near-instant disclosure requirements, no limits assumes the people will have a choice between a candidate who takes large amounts of money from the few and a candidate who isn’t as dependent on wealthy donors. I am not convinced we would see that. Indeed, more likely, we would have to choose between two candidates who are funded by opposing special interests and perhaps a third under-funded candidate we would never hear from.
Most people already believe politicians are in the hands of business and moneyed interests. Can you imagine what public sentiment would look like if the doors were blown open on what individuals and companies could give? There are those who say trying to prevent public cynicism is not possible or is not the role of government. But I believe that once people truly start losing fundamental faith in the democratic process, apathy overwhelms the society until the democratic process is window dressing on a corrupt and dysfunctional government that is accountable to a powerful few.
Money is like water, it will always find a way to flow, but we must nevertheless smartly balance the rules so that we neither open the floodgates of influence and its equally corrosive appearance nor strangle a candidate’s ability to raise money to the point where other entities garner undue influence. Moderation in all things my mother always told me — it applies to campaign finance rules too.
— GIL CABRERA