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June 17, 2013 at 6:07 AM

Civil Disagreement: Should Seattle have public campaign financing?

The Seattle City Council is set to vote on a proposal for public financing of campaigns for their own seats. Read our June 15 editorial. Here editorial board members Bruce Ramsey and Lynne Varner consider whether this is a good idea.

Lynne, why the push for public financing of the Seattle City Council’s election campaigns?  As Seattle Ethics & Elections Commissioner Bruce Carter wrote, public financing “seems to have become a remedy in search of a problem.” There is a limit on contributions now. The average contribution in the 2011 campaigns was $231.  Has the system been corrupted? Not enough for me to worry about it.

The real problem is different. It is that politicians have to go out and raise private money in order to get reelected. They don’t like doing this. It makes them feel dirty. They like spending the public’s money, but they don’t like asking their friends and supporters for private money.

Under public campaign financing, they don’t have to. The government pays for their campaigns.

I understand their motives. I just don’t get why I, a taxpayer in Seattle, should feel sympathetic to them. Because I don’t care how raising money makes them feel.  It may be only five dollars and such-and-such cents a year, as they say. The cost of three cups of coffee. Fine. I’ll take the coffee.  Giving that money to them for the purpose of reelecting them is like setting it on fire. I don’t do that.


Bruce, I’m not adamantly for public financing of campaigns, but I’m intrigued enough to support the Seattle City Council’s explorations.

The ability to fundraise, while an admirable talent,  should not be a barrier to elective office. Publicly-financed campaigns could help attracted a broad, cross-section of people and expand political discourse. New York City has public financing and it is credited with getting more everyday people involved in politics. Money levels the playing field. It allows Joe Blow to have a shot against Joe Biden.

Several on the City Council support public campaign financing, Councilmembers Mike O’Brien,NIck Licata and  Jean Godden. Licata’s “Urban Politics” blog offers a thorough historical view of Seattle’s experience with public campaign financing during the late 1970s, 80s and early 1990s. That ended in 1992 when state Initiative 134 passed, prohibiting public financing. The state Legislature offered a partial remedy in 2008, giving local jurisdictions the authority to create programs for public financing of campaigns.

I can disagree with your concerns as a taxpayer. When the government pays for political campaigns, the public pays. But think of it this way: the public also benefits from democratically-elected leaders and a corruption-free system. Public financing of political campaigns keeps those public benefits pure.

I don’t believe that money is always a corrupting influence. Large corporate expenditures do not automatically buy influence. But they do if the seller and buyer want it to. Money talks.


Comments | More in Civil Disagreement, Pro/con | Topics: campaign, city council, money


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