Reform Schooled

An Akron group's attack on campaign financing meets its match at the mayor's office.

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Greg Coleridge, a leader of the fight for campaign - finance reform in Akron. - Walter  Novak
Greg Coleridge, a leader of the fight for campaign finance reform in Akron.
For years, Greg Coleridge asked Akron government for help in attracting federal funds for neighborhood projects. And too often, he says, the city didn't listen.

"No matter how well prepared [we were], the city councilpeople would kind of look over their shoulder at the planning department. Whatever the mayor's people said, is what happened."

Coleridge became convinced that Don Plusquellic -- mayor of Akron for 13 years, reelected without opposition last year -- dominated city politics through fear, discouraging dissent on council by working to defeat the few councilmen who disagreed with him.

Coleridge saw what happened to Warner Mendenhall, who challenged the mayor's priorities in the mid-1990s. Mendenhall questioned the city's support of downtown redevelopment projects, arguing, for instance, that Akron should spend more on housing instead of building a new baseball stadium. He lost a reelection campaign to a well-financed ally of the mayor.

Like Coleridge, Mendenhall believed that the mayor and construction companies doing business with the city held the real power in Akron.

It was a balance of power that the two outsiders hoped to upset. Mendenhall, now an attorney, and Coleridge, an activist for the Quaker-founded American Friends Service Committee, are leaders of a local coalition of religious and community groups working to fight big money's influence in politics. They decided to start by reforming political campaigns in their own town.

It would seem like an easy enough goal. Campaign finance reform holds almost universal support among voters. And Akron's initiative system allowed activists to bypass city government -- the very people who benefit from current laws -- and go directly to the public. But Akron is instructive on how difficult it is to enact even the most modest of reforms.

A lot of campaign reform falls victim to court rulings that give campaign spending many of the same protections as free speech. That's essentially what happened with Akron's first attempt at reform. A 1998 ballot proposal set contribution limits as low as $100. Although the mayor and council argued against the change, voters approved it. But two city councilmen sued to challenge the new rules, and last year, a federal judge struck most of them down.

So the reformers got another proposal on the ballot this year: Issue 10, a plan to create voluntary public funding, or "clean money." Candidates who agreed to take very few private donations and who gathered a certain number of signatures from city residents could receive city funds for their campaigns. It wouldn't stop wealthy donors from pouring money into other candidates' war chests, but it was a start.

"It really levels the playing field to help candidates that may be good candidates, but maybe didn't have direct financing, to actually run a competitive campaign," says Reverend David Brown, a Presbyterian minister on the board of the Akron Area Association of Churches, which endorsed Issue 10.

The reformers modeled Issue 10 after similar laws in four states. This year in Maine, for instance, about a third of the candidates for state legislature ran with clean money. Maine's plan survived a court challenge because it doesn't force candidates to participate.

Coleridge and Mendenhall thought clean money would encourage independent thinkers to run for office. The fact that they spiced up their arguments by implying that the power-holders were corrupt probably did little to help their cause.

"Right now, under the current system of private financing, two groups of citizens are trying to get the attention of government: voters and funders," Coleridge says. "In Akron, funders are often contractors who don't even live in Akron. They're benefiting from these cost overruns and exorbitant projects, a system -- some call it, if you will -- of legalized bribery."

Not so, snaps Mayor Plusquellic, who vehemently denies the implication that contractors are bribing politicians. "When somebody calls me a crook, I'm pretty pissed off . . . It's so disproportionate, this little band of wackos picking out the City of Akron, and me, in particular."

If Coleridge and Mendenhall were looking for an example of how council follows the mayor's lead, they got it after Issue 10 made it to the ballot. All 12 Democrats on the 13-member council joined Plusquellic in denouncing the referendum, repeating arguments almost verbatim.

The mayor and council argued that Issue 10 was flawed and unconstitutional, just like the 1998 proposal. To do that, they jumped on one mistake: Issue 10 created an Election Commission to prevent fraud and tried to make lying to the commission a felony. But Ohio cities don't have the power to enact felonies.

They also said the Election Commission's powers to investigate candidates' use of public funds were too broad and vague. One councilman vowed to sue if Issue 10 passed.

And they argued that fringe candidates would be drinking at the public trough. "It's too easy for groups to get people to sign a petition," Plusquellic says. "Half the time, people sign things just to get a person off their back." He and the councilmen conjured up nightmare scenarios: people using public funds to hire friends or relatives; several publicly funded candidates ganging up on a candidate to get one challenger in.

Some councilmen opposed the whole idea of public funding for campaigns. John Otterman calls Issue 10 "free money," not clean money. "If you go up to somebody and say, 'Do you want to give me your tax money to run for office?' . . . most of the people I've talked to have said, 'No, I don't want you to take my hard-earned money.'"

Yet Plusquellic's most artistic blow to reformists was creating Issue 9, another ballot proposal, which would have allowed council to raise property taxes by up to a mill to pay for public money campaigns.

On November 7, Akron voters drubbed Issue 10. It got only 43 percent of the vote.

Coleridge believes the tax-hike possibility scared voters away. "That took [Issue 10] down like an anvil. It's a scare tactic that worked."

Clean money supporters will discuss their next move, but Coleridge says the group may well take a similar plan to the ballot again next year.

Either way, reformers made an enemy by calling Plusquellic a machine politician and suggesting that contractors have bought influence in City Hall. The mayor accuses Mendenhall, who ran unsuccessfully for Summit County executive this year, of attacking him for political gain. It's an affront Plusquellic won't soon forget.

"We beat them before, and we'll beat them again," he says. "I'm not going to stand for the crazies taking over the city, if I can help it."

For now, power remains in the hands of those who've grown comfortable wielding it.

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