Opening Statement for Hearing on Campaign Finance Reform

I have been looking forward to this hearing for a long time.

First, thank you to Councilmember Grosso and his staff for introducing versions of a small donor match bill in 2013 and in 2015. I think with this bill in 2017, the third time’s a charm. I am thrilled to see nine colleagues co-introduce this version.

Thank you, as well, to Chairman Allen, for prioritizing this legislation and the additional campaign finance bills you will be holding a hearing on in coming days.

My biggest thanks is to the many DC residents who have collected signatures, door-knocked, phone-called, and worked so hard to make campaign finance reform of urgent importance. I have some insight into how difficult a task this is when I worked with some of you in the very hot summer of 2012 to bring a voter initiative to the ballot, Initiative 70, which would have allowed only individuals to contribute to candidates in DC elections. I am still a believer in that approach, because I think that it is fair, transparent, and simple to enforce. Yet I am equally enthusiastic about a small-donor match program because in states and cities where it has been implemented it has proven to achieve several reforms desperately needed in the District of Columbia:

It has democratized who gives to candidates. We need a system in which all residents – no matter their ward, their job, their income – believe their voice matters. When I think about why this bill will be a game-changer, I think about two things: When I ran in 2013, only taking individual contributions and heavily relying on small donors, I was written off and called crazy. I don’t disagree with those characterizations, even now, given how cards are stacked against you doing this under the current system.

I also think about a scene from “The Wire,” in which mayoral candidate Tommy Carcetti was locked by his staff in a windowless, computerless room to call a list of heavy hitters, known powerbrokers in his city, who could “max out” –write a check for the maximum contribution. This means candidates spend an inordinate amount of time with a small group of wealthy donors, listening to their concerns and much less time with the vast majority of voters in the city, who cannot write a check for $2,000 or even $250.

It has democratized who runs for office. We need for residents from all walks of life be able to run for office. Reports on the New York City program have determined that their small donor match program has made their council more diverse in gender, race, ethnicity, and income. Right now, most people who are not wealthy or have a vast network of big money donors through family friends, law school and law firms, business school and corporate contacts are discouraged to run. 

It helps reduce the incumbent advantage. This might not be a popular argument to make on this dais, but many of us were once challengers and know this to be true. It is very hard for challengers to raise money and they often rely on smaller donors.

After reading the 2009 and 2013 post-election reports from the New York City Campaign Finance Board, I do have some questions about areas for improvement:

1) I am still unclear whether those who qualify and participate can receive donations from corporations and LLCs. New York’s bans LLC contributions, because they are not transparent about the donor.

2) Right now the bill does not require small donors to report their employer, only their occupation.

I think this brings up several concerns:

Bundling: I am interested in whether advocates have a concern that employers might encourage employees to bundle small donations.

Pay-to-Play: New York’s System also has a “Doing Business” registry, in which those who work for employers that receive city money through contracts, grants, and other means are ineligible for the small donor match, if I understand this correctly.

3) I am interested in why the bill allows membership organizations to give but not PACs as I understand it. I think this would allow unions to give but not corporate PACs. If we want this truly to be fair, I think the playing field should be level.

4) I am also interested in how the disbursement of funds will work. Will it conform to current filing deadlines?

I look forward to hearing from all our witness, both in favor and against this system. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.