11/12/08 — Program takes money out of state elections

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Program takes money out of state elections

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 12, 2008 1:46 PM

A pilot program designed to wrest control of campaign fundraising from special interests and return it to the grassroots level got its first workout last week in three Council of State races.

The Voter-Owned Elections Pilot Act of 2007 provided candidates for those offices a choice -- continue to receive contributions from the industries those offices that regulate or "clean money" from a public fund.

To receive the funding candidates had to agree to strict spending and fundraising limits and by demonstrating support from registered voters in the form of hundreds of qualifying donations.

The program has earned the support of the nonprofit, nonpartisan N.C. Voters for Clean Elections that in turn has support of similar organization such as the League of Women Voters, AARP and NAACP, said Chase Foster, coordinator and lobbyist for N.C. Voters for Clean Elections.

People who support the pilot program are "tired of money in politics," he said.

"This past election we saw $6.5 billion spent nationwide -- $2.5 billion just on the presidential election," he said. "That $6.5 billion is bigger than some countries' economy. That money has to come from somewhere. Who gives that money? It is not all of us -- most of the money is coming from one or two percent of the population. This (pilot) could become a model for other races. Instead of just calling Raleigh and Charlotte, they (participating candidates) went to all 100 counties and asked average people. It authorizes them to run and once they get authorized, they do not have to do more fundraising they just do politics."

Participating candidates included June Atkinson for superintendent of public instruction, Les Merritt, state auditor, and Wayne Goodwin and John Odom, commissioner of insurance.

Merritt, a Republican, lost to Beth Wood. Ms. Atkinson, a Democrat, defeated Republican Richard Morgan. Goodwin, a Democrat, topped Odom, a Republican.

To qualify, candidates had to raise at least 750 contributions ranging from $10 to $200 from registered voters across the state. The total of donations had to be at least $29,750 and no more than $239,802 for a contested primary and $119,901 for a non-contested race.

Those requirements were to ensure viable, serious candidates, not "fringe" candidates, Foster said.

From May 6 to the election, the participating candidates were not allowed to do any fundraising.

"They just did pig pickings, church functions those kind of things like maybe how things used to be done before all of the money," Foster said.

The General Assembly set aside funding for the pilot program. Participating candidates for commissioner of insurance received $380,409, while candidates for the other two races received $300,000 each.

They also were eligible for matching funds up to 200 percent of their base amount if they were outspent by a non-participating opponent or third-party group.

If a candidate decided to opt out of the program, they had to repay the money they received plus interest.

"The insurance race, no one really cares about it expect for the insurance agencies and the people who are directly regulated," Foster said.

Foster said that former insurance commissioner Jim Long received 70-80 percent of his campaign funding from those groups.

Under the pilot program it dropped "dramatically" to around 3.5 percent, he said.

"I think the most exciting part of this pilot is it that it creates a way to ensure good government and to stop the subtle or indirect or however the influence is," he said. "It's not like they are buying legislation, but they are buying access. It is about priorities -- who you are spending time with. To me, I hope we can get this program for state treasurer, commissioner of labor.

"The second thing I am most excited about is taking stuff away from the Raleigh-centric politics, getting people out doing more grassroots campaigning, talking to more people across the state. Council of State races are about name recognition therefore it is all about money, all about getting your name out. That means, as the candidates will tell you, that you spend most of your time fundraising."

Public financing allows candidates to focus more on campaigning and less on asking people for money, he said.

"I hope if we can show that its works for smaller races then we can get it expanded eventually to the governor and legislature," he said. "We'd like community-oriented citizens to be able to run without having to be loyal to a party guy at the top with the money he distributes down."

That, he said, would make elected officials accountable only to the people in their districts.

"Hopefully it would bring more diversity, people who otherwise would be discouraged from running because of a lack of funds or lack of connections," he said. "The legislature is increasing not a citizens' legislature it's not as effective as it used to be. I think anyone who has the support of a community and has leadership potential should be able to serve."