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Campaign finance reform still not on agenda of Issue 6 supporters

Local activist Greg Coleridge plans to push for campaign-finance reform in Cuyahoga County, but he wonders if local officials are as committed to the idea as he is.

The suspicion started on the Internet. Coleridge went online to volunteer for one of several workgroups that will meet throughout 2010 to guide the county's switch to a new government structure. He scanned the county's transition web page but couldn't find a group dedicated to his cause, which he says is integral to taking the influence of money out of local elections and limiting corruption.

A workgroup for economic development and planning? Check. Human services? Check. Campaign finance? "There is nothing that specifically looks at campaign finance," says Coleridge. "I had to click on "other" and then write it in a box. Who knows if I'll be contacted?"

There isn't any reason to believe that county transition leaders won't contact Coleridge and other like-minded activists. County administrator Jim McCafferty, one of three county administrators assigned by the outgoing commissioners to oversee the transition, says that all 400-plus volunteers who signed up for the groups will be called upon. The restructuring of county government promises to be a gargantuan effort as the county shifts from the three-commissioner/eight-row-officer system to a county executive/county council model.

When asked Monday if there will be a group to explore campaign finance reform, McCafferty advised Scene to call Marty Zanotti of New Cuyahoga Now, the civic group that successfully sold the county restructuring initiative, Issue 6, to voters last fall. Zanotti and his crew, embedded in the transition process, are handling the issue, says McCafferty.

Zanotti did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment for this story. He has pledged in the past that the subject will be examined, but he has not said how or when.

Just how much reform local politicians will stand for has yet to be seen. The argument advanced by some is that some sort of election reform is essential in a county plagued by patronage games and dubious fundraising, where officeholders can amass campaign dollars from the pockets of their own employees.

And timing matters. Blogger Bill Callahan of notes: "According to the PD, 'In the first few months under the charter, council members are expected to tackle a code of ethics and campaign-finance reform.' But by then, of course, those county council members will already be incumbents who've already raised a lot of money to run for the job, presumably with the help of the usual suspects."

Coleridge, of Cleveland Heights, is director of the Quaker-based Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee, a social-justice group. He knows a thing or two about campaign-finance reform; he was an integral player in Akron's adoption of such reforms in the late 1990s. Coleridge doesn't understand why the issue didn't get more attention in Cuyahoga County during last year's heated campaign for government restructuring (it wasn't an issue until political opponents attacked prosecutor Bill Mason's pot of employee-contribution money).

"There are those who have met on issues of corporate power and democracy and campaign-finance reform who are very interested [in the transition process]," says Coleridge. "How could one look at a sweeping set of reforms and miss what's arguably one of the biggest changes needed, which is to limit the corrosive influence of big money in politics?"  

Big money is here to stay in national and state politics, judging from last week's controversial Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. But there are viable options to local campaign-finance reform, and if it is indeed going to happen on the local level, now is the time to ride the momentum, says Catherine Turcer of Columbus-based Ohio Citizens Action. That's Callahan's point: After elected offices are filled in November, inertia will likely take hold and incumbents will naturally favor whatever system favors them.

"You use the momentum to keep moving the process," says Turcer. "You need to make sure you have good [campaign- finance] rules in place beside the change in government. If you don't take care of it right away, you fall back into the same habits — it's hard work to raise money from alternative sources and not from your employees."

It won't be an easy battle. Coleridge reflects on the contentious fight to change Akron's elections, which to this day remains a legal slugfest.

The Akron effort began in the late '90s, when a small band of grassroots volunteers — with the guidance of religious-based nonprofits — took on the progressive cause. The reforms were created to stop donors from using campaign contributions to buy city contracts or exert influence over council. "People at the community level were not having their voices heard," says Coleridge. "Public officials were more in tune with their contributors than with their constituents."

But the reformers met resistance. Mayor Don Plusquellic, a Democrat, denounced the effort and formed his own commission to explore reform. Plusquellic at one point called the reform leaders "extremists" and "loudmouths," and argued that many of their proposed changes were unconstitutional (arguments about campaign finance typically revolve around issues of free speech and the First Amendment).

The reformers soldiered on and pointed to how outside and moneyed interests — contractors, lawyers, other officeholders and political parties — played huge roles in municipal elections. The activists won a following in part because they opened their ears to everyone in the community. And Cuyahoga County reformers have to "include everybody — every gender, every race, every age, every constituency," says Patti Longville, another veteran of the Akron reform movement. "You have to have broad support of the goal."

The reform group ultimately advanced four changes, each deemed constitutional (the reforms were challenged all the way up to the Supreme Court, which refused to take the case in 2003). Those reforms, now written in the city's charter, include: 

• non-cash campaign contribution limits on individuals, groups and political parties of $100 for ward council candidates and $300 for at-large council and mayoral candidates

• a cash campaign contribution limit of $25

• a home-address public-disclosure requirement for all contributors

• an employer-identification requirement for contributors who give $50 or more.

Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with the D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, says these types of reforms are generally non-controversial and have "been upheld, by and large, by courts when challenged." Coleridge says the changes have created a clearer picture of who contributes to campaigns.

Not everyone patted the reformers on the back. Cynics question the impact of the reforms. Plusquellic remains defiant. Longville, the Akron activist, is suing the mayor in Summit County Court Common Pleas, saying the mayor has breached the stricter rules. Plusquellic, who is defended by the city's law department, says the rules remain open to interpretation.

Mike McGrath, a spokesman for the Denver-based National Civic League, says it is not uncommon for local reformers to meet resistance. "There are usually some interest groups that don't want the change and political leaders as well," says McGrath. "There has been a lot of litigation over the years with most of the different types of campaign finance reforms out there. 

"There's a lot of complexity to this problem," he adds. "You have to find the right balance between preventing corruption and special influences, and allowing candidates to have sufficient resources to actually make a broad appeal to the voters." Ultimately, McGrath says, reformers must tailor rules that are "right for your community." 

Coleridge argues that public financing of campaigns — a system that imposes limits on candidates' fundraising but also matches what they raise — is the way to go in Cuyahoga County (the idea never found traction in Akron).

"I tend to feel, as do others, that the best way to get money out of politics is to make elections, and election funding, public," says Coleridge. "Right now you have this dichotomy — candidates who may feel torn between serving their [donors] and serving their voters. Why not make those one and the same by making a system of full public financing? Get that money equation out of the process so candidates can be unburdened. Many [candidates] will tell you that the least attractive thing they do is going out hat-in-hand trying to raise money. This would allow them to address what we as citizens feel is the most important thing — they tell us about the issues they care about, instead of going to cocktail receptions." 

The problem is that such a system is voluntary and vulnerable to manipulation. In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama declined public financing in order to avoid its fundraising limits, and John McCain used the promise of public funds to secure a loan, then promptly tried to withdraw.

More relevant here and now: Is this really the time to go to local taxpayers already squeezed by the recession? Opponents to publicly financed elections will likely cast this type of reform as "welfare for politicians."

"One of the problems that inevitably arises in [the publicly financed elections debate] is where do you get the money when the economy is in the shape it's in now?" says Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center. "Advocates of public finance typically — and I think with some force — argue that the savings, by eliminating the sweetheart deals and the special interests, will result in the program eventually paying for itself."

Taxpayers in Cuyahoga County should take a serious look at all items in the county's budget if they indeed come to weigh a decision, says Ryan. He points to Los Angeles, where publicly financed elections cost less than maintaining the city's zoo. He asks, "Would you rather have clean elections or a well-maintained zoo?"

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