(IMPORTANT: VENUE CHANGE!)
A grassroots effort to get dirty money out of Colorado politics — and to even the political playing field — is gathering steam this summer with volunteers working against the clock to gather enough signatures to place a clean elections measure on the statewide ballot.
If Clean Campaigns Colorado (CCC) is successful, Coloradans will be asked to decide in November whether to change the state’s constitution to allow public financing of election campaigns for statewide and state legislative offices. The funding would come from a small tax increase of $5 to $10 for an individual and $10 to $20 for couples filing jointly.
CCC was given the go-ahead to move forward by the Secretary of State’s office on April 28, leaving the group about 11 weeks to gather the 77,000 valid signatures needed. But what might look to some as a last-minute effort to get a ballot initiative rolling is actually the culmination of almost three years of trying to persuade state lawmakers to handle the issue.
Members of CCC have been meeting since November 2006. They started by drafting legislation and carrying it to the Colorado General Assembly in hopes that someone would sponsor a bill about public campaign financing. But that effort went nowhere.
“Nobody would even look at it,” says Jim Hoffmeister, a Boulder resident. “I tried to get it in [Andrew Romanoff ’s] hands — just anyone you can think of, I was pestering. They didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They didn’t even return calls.”
Public campaign financing was “dead in the water,” he says.
Then the group decided to take a different tack.
Following in the footsteps of Arizona and Maine, they opted to take the issue to the voters by framing it as a change to the state’s constitution.
Hoffmeister says public financing of election campaigns would be the biggest and best change to the state’s constitution since Colorado gave women the right to vote in November 1893. If passed, candidates who agree to not accept any private money would be allocated the average amount of dollars it takes to win an election for that particular office.
For example, if the average cost of winning a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives in Boulder County over the past two election cycles were $75,000, Clean Campaign candidates would receive $75,000. If their opponent accepted private money and outspent them and won, the amount allocated would increase in the next election cycle.
Initiative 53 stands to benefit Coloradans in a few ways, proponents believe. First and foremost, it would end politicians’ reliance on special-interest groups for monetary support. Those who enter office after running on public money will be free to listen to their constituents and not lobbying groups, he says.
“They won’t have to worry about being re-elected, so we’d actually have a voice for the people,” he says.
But also, any citizen who qualified would be able to run for public office because the ability to campaign would no longer be limited by a person’s wealth.
With a greater diversity of voices in the General Assembly and statewide offices, the people would have better representation.
Hoffmeister says he was recently asked what would happen if lots of people end up running for office as a result of public financing.
“[They asked this] as if that would be a bad thing,” Hoffmeister says. “I said, ‘I would think our dream would have been fulfilled.’ Right now you have very few people who will challenge an incumbent. Very few people who are outside the parties will even campaign, and it’s understandable why. It costs a fortune. It would open the door for anybody who decides, ‘I can do it better than they’re doing. I would like to run for office.’” CCC has about 30,000 signatures gathered now and is working hard to reach out to the public to collect the additional 47,000 it will need. The organization is seeking volunteers as well as contributions to offset the cost of the petitions.
Initiative 53 is supported by Interfaith Alliance, Be the Change, Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and Healthcare for All Colorado.
“We tried to get Common Cause and League of Women voters, Bell Policy Center — all these progressive organizations — and they’ve all hung up and will not endorse us,” Hoffmeister says.
Jenny Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, says Common Cause strongly supports the public financing of elections but does not support Initiative 53.
“Initiative 53 is not the right policy, and we can’t support it for that reason,” Flanagan says. “We believe that public financing is the right system, if the right policy is in place, and Initiative 53 doesn’t set up that right policy. It’s got some major policy flaws, and that’s where our concerns are.”
Flanagan says Initiative 53 won’t provide sufficient funds for a candidate to run an effective campaign and that it has no mechanism to keep the campaigns competitive. If a candidate who accepts private money is outspending a candidate using public financing, Initiative 53 doesn’t enable Clean Campaign candidates to compensate through matching funds or small private donations.
On the national level, Common Cause is supporting the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA) that is making its way through Congress. FENA would permit candidates to raise additional money through small, private donations, she says.
Hoffmeister says Initiative 53 deliberately does not contain a provision for “matching funds,” because those provisions have resulted in constitutionality challenges. On Tuesday this week, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated an order of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and reinstated an injunction against Arizona’s “matching funds” provision, which some believe restricts free speech and is therefore unconstitutional.
Nationally known populist commentator Jim Hightower is in favor of Initiative 53 and will be in Colorado this Friday and Saturday to support the measure.
“To me, you take every step you can to democratize the process, and this does it,” Hightower says. “It has worked phenomenally in Maine and North Carolina and New Mexico and Arizona, and now it’s in Connecticut and is being expanded elsewhere. A number of cities are doing it. You can argue endlessly about who has the best route to get there, but to me, we ought to be jumping on any effort that gets corrupting corporate money out of the system.”
The potential benefits of Initiative 53 for Colorado are immense, he says.
“You get a little more democracy, a little less corporate control of public policy and a little more faith that people actually matter in America again,” Hightower says.
Hightower will speak in favor of Initiative 53 this Friday, June 11, at Denver’s Stapleton Park. Kenny Perkins and the Night Shift will perform. The event starts at 6 p.m. and is free and open to the public.
As of press time, no one has come forward formally to oppose Initiative 53, but Hoffmeister suspects that’s only because many don’t believe the initiative will make it onto the ballot.
Hoffmeister hopes to defy those expectations. He and other volunteers are working with the attitude that the signatures are there and that they can get the issue before voters this fall.
“We’re going all out,” he says. For more information about Initiative 53, to make a contribution or to volunteer, go to cleancampaignscolorado.com.
Jim Hightower will
speak on Initiative 53 on Friday, June 11, at the Stapleton Central Park
Festival Area, 9001 MLK Blvd., Denver, CO. The event is free and includes a 6 p.m. performance by Kenny Perkins and the Night Shift.