Why the public should own political campaigns

Californians overwhelmingly feel that the Capitol is run by special
interests. Indeed, according to the PPIC, 64 percent of likely voters feel
that campaign contributions have a bad effect on public-policy decisions
made in Sacramento. Given the tenor of last week’s committee hearing on A.B.
583, a bill to create a voluntary system of publicly financed campaigns for
Legislature and statewide office, it seems that Californians will have to
get used to it.

Opponents of the Clean Money bill found various details to attach their
criticism to at the Senate Elections Committee hearing. Several senators
spent a great deal of time predicting how the system would be gamed by
politicians, in spite of contrary testimony that such hypothetical
situations simply had not occurred in states where Clean Money already has
been adopted. While acknowledging the valid problem of privately funded
independent expenditures in a publicly financed campaign, it is difficult to
escape the conclusion that these senators simply don’t support reforming the
current system that emphasizes wealthy contributors at the expense of the
vast majority of Californians who feel that their voices are not heard in
the Capitol.

Notwithstanding, the several concerns offered at the hearing, the principled
objection to publicly financed elections is that taxpayer money should not
go to candidates that the taxpayer doesn’t necessarily support. Opponents
ask, “Why should taxpayers be forced to fund politicians’ campaigns for

The better question, especially in light of recent ethics and
campaign-contribution scandals across the country and bottom-dwelling public
confidence in the Legislature, is why doesn’t the public own the campaigns
of public officials? Why, in a democracy, are we so tied to a political
system that inevitably makes candidates’ success dependent on contributions
from the industries and interests that they hope to regulate?

Most people accept the idea that the government collects and spends taxes to
promote the health of the state. Taxes fund schools and prisons, support
industries and business opportunities and maintain a functioning
infrastructure, all with the goal of creating a strong state and improving
the lives of its citizens. If a highway needs maintenance or a traffic sign
is knocked over, the locals don’t fund raise to pay for the repairs. Rather,
such expenditures are paid for by people all over the state whose taxes go
into the pot that is the state’s general fund. That pot, in turn, pays for
expenses incurred to benefit the public at large.

Why, then, is something so fundamental to the health of our state–the
selection of the people who dictate public policy–somehow exempt from the
reasoning that the citizens of the state share the burden for preserving the
health of the state? Elected officials routinely commit public resources to
projects that receive marginal scrutiny from the taxpayers that fund those
projects. Taxpayers aren’t asked whether they approve of all expenditures
that the state makes because there is an assumption in a democracy that the
government acts in the people’s interest, and that the people have joint
ownership of public resources. But somehow this does not extend to the
process by which we select our leaders whose platforms and candidacies are
promoted and paid for by private interests. This current system inevitably
breeds suspicion on the part of the voter and creates the appearance of
unsavory relationships between lawmakers and the industries they regulate.

Just as the state’s taxpayers all chip in to maintain the safety and
integrity of our physical infrastructure, so should they chip in to pay for
a credible political infrastructure that earns the confidence of the public,
something no one can claim about our current system where private interests
subsidize the careers of those who make decisions on behalf of the rest of

If we are not going to have clean elections, let’s be honest about it. Using
NASCAR as a model, I propose that legislators sew patches with the logos of
their 15-largest campaign contributors onto their suits. This wouldn’t be so
different from the opinion that most Californians have of their public
servants in Sacramento.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: