Public financing vote: Seattle measure would provide up to $210,000 per candidate

SEATTLE -- Seattle voters are being asked to approve a new tax to finance the political campaigns of candidates running for the City Council.

Anyone running could qualify for up to $210,000 in public funds.  Will this help get rid of the influence of money in politics and bring more people into politics?

“It costs nearly a quarter-million dollars to run a viable campaign for City Council,” said public financing supporter Sharon Maeda. “That’s ridiculous.”

Because you can’t raise more than $700 from any one person, a candidate needs to have a lot of friends who are able to write a lot of pretty sizable checks to be taken seriously.

Public financing proponents admit that Seattle has a pretty clean history when it comes to money and politics. But they argue it’s time to help out candidates to keep in that way, and to help encourage others to run.

“It really means that serious people from diverse backgrounds actually have a chance, a fighting chance, to run respectable campaigns,” said Maeda.

Opponents of public financing point to research they say demonstrates little, if any, changes in the cities that have adopted such systems.

“This campaign finance idea has been around for almost 40 years, and it has not turned out to have a success record,” said Paul Guppy of the Washington Policy Center, an independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. “That’s why I think you don’t see it regularly across the country.”

Here at the main elements of Seattle’s campaign financing plan:

    This whole program is expected to cost about $2 million to $3 million per election cycle.  As citywide tax measures go, this one would be quite modest.

    “It’s $4 a year for someone who has a $400,000 home,” said Maeda.  “That’s not a lot of money, that’s not even one latte, you know.  I mean, to make democracy work a little better, $4 dollars a year.”

    Guppy objects more to the principle than the money.

    “Everyone in Seattle would be forced to give money to candidates that they might oppose,” Guppy said.  “You have this moral contradiction.”

    The measure would apply only to City Council candidates, not for candidates for mayor.

    District Elections

    Also on the ballot in Seattle is another measure that purports to shake things up at City Hall.  Charter Amendment 19 would create districts for City Council members to run in, instead of the at-large, citywide elections Seattle now has.

    Supporters have drawn up a map with seven separate districts, while retaining two at-large positions.  Supporters say it would force council members to be more attentive to neighborhood concerns.  Opponents say you’d lose the citywide perspective and you would pit neighborhood against neighborhood.