Fair elections: A fair shot at the California dream

President Obama’s historic election has shattered barriers that have long stood in the way of people of color holding elected office. The notion that any citizen can be called to public service is central to our notion of democracy and fairness, and with Mr. Obama in the White House, our dreams for California and the United States can be limitless.

While running for office takes dreams, not to mention hard work, it also takes money. Sadly, financial barriers have kept too many Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and people from disadvantaged communities from serving in elected office. If our government leaders are to be as beautifully diverse as America, we have to level the playing field for candidates of all backgrounds.

That’s why I’m supporting the California Fair Elections Act (CFEA), which will appear on the June 2010 ballot. Under a fair elections system, candidates from any background who show a broad base of support can run for office even if they don’t have deep pockets, as long as they agree to strict spending limits.

Authored by Senator Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) and signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, the California Fair Elections 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. The pilot program would be funded primarily by fees on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers, with no taxpayer dollars going to candidates.

A version of the California Fair Elections Act is already in place in seven states and two cities. Nearly 400 candidates were elected using only fair elections funding in their 2008 campaigns, and the programs enjoy popular support across party lines. National surveys show that two out of three voters support public financing, including 71% among Latinos, 69% among Democrats, 64% among Independents, and 64% among Republicans.

Latinos, African-Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and women will benefit greatly from the level playing field of a fair political finance system. Our current money-driven system too often requires candidates to be personally wealthy, or have access to networks of wealthy private donors in order to run a winning campaign. That means the best candidates may not be able to enter or sustain a contest for elected office just because of their lack of moneyed sponsors. When these financial barriers are eliminated, as they have in Arizona and Maine, it has resulted in more people of color to run for office. In fact, in Arizona the number of Latin and Native Americans running for office nearly tripled in the first year Fair Elections went fully into effect, from 13 in 2000 to 37 in 2002.

Public financing has freed elected officials across the country to pass bi-partisan, groundbreaking legislation that is only possible when our leaders do not fear retribution from powerful special interests. For example, Arizona was able to pass innovative healthcare legislation to provide more affordable prescriptions, an action then-Governor Napolitano said was only possible because of Arizona’s fair elections system. She cited the fact that legislators were able to withstand powerful pressure from the pharmaceutical industry. Under a fair elections system, elected officials truly represent voters, not campaign donors.

California has given me so many opportunities, including the honor of representing several Southeast Los Angeles County communities in the California State Assembly. But I have been fortunate in succeeding under the current system and I know of many skilled and dedicated individuals who do not even try because of the many barriers. Every qualified candidate should have the opportunity to win elected office, not just the ones with the most money. That means reforming our elections system so that more Latinos, African Americans, and other historically disadvantaged communities can serve the public.

My parents came to California in 1961 with a dream of a better life for themselves and their children. Today, I represent almost half a million Californians and am able to help open the doors of government to others. I’ll be urging voters to support the California Fair Elections Act to give our best and brightest a fair shot at this American dream.

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