A decade ago, it seemed Albuquerque’s new public financing program had proven itself.
All three mayoral candidates in 2009 used public money to run their campaigns, keeping expenditures under $400,000 each, well below the almost $1.2 million the incumbent mayor had spent in 2005 to get re-elected.
Public financing freed candidates to talk to voters rather than spend all their time fundraising, supporters said, while making it possible for them to compete against candidates raising money from big donors. They also hoped reducing the amount of money spent might inspire more confidence in the political process.
Then a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision in an Arizona case invalidated a provision in Albuquerque’s law that provided additional funds when expenditures by private competitors exceeded the initial city disbursements to publicly funded candidates. In the wake of that decision, the city no longer issued matching funds, making it difficult to compete financially against private money.
In the next two campaign cycles — 2013 and 2017 — Albuquerque voters saw most mayoral candidates abandon the program.
“When the Supreme Court struck that down it just blew a hole in the whole program. We’ve been trying to fix it ever since,” said Eric Griego, executive director of a local progressive organizing group, New Mexico Working Families.
The Bernalillo County Commission could decide as soon as tomorrow night whether to place a proposed fix on the November ballot after receiving 28,000 petition signatures submitted by Griego’s organization and others in early August. The Albuquerque City Clerk must sign off on the proposal, too. It’s unclear when that will happen.
In addition to more money outright for mayoral candidates, advocates hope the changes they propose will spur more interest and participation in elections by giving Albuquerque residents $25 coupons they can then contribute to their choice of candidate.
Here are the basics of the proposal:
• The initial payout for mayoral candidates would increase from $1 to $1.75 per registered voter. (It leaves the payout for city councilors at the current one dollar)
• Each eligible city resident would receive a $25 coupon to give to the publicly funded candidate of their choice. These have been termed “Democracy Dollars.”
The Democracy Dollars concept is modeled in part on a similar program in Seattle, which issued $25 coupons for the first time in 2017. An independent evaluation of that program found that a little more than 20,000 residents used the vouchers, and of those, 88 percent had not contributed to a local campaign between 2011 and 2015.
More small donations going to candidates from Albuquerque residents is a goal of Democracy Dollar proponents, who argue it will lessen the influence of big donors.
“A very small number of people make campaign contributions in ABQ. This will give the vast majority of voters and ordinary citizens the opportunity to have a much bigger impact,” former Albuquerque State Senator Dede Feldman, said of what she calls the influence gap.
A little history: Albuquerque efforts to staunch big campaign spending
Attempts to limit the influence of money in Albuquerque politics aren’t a new thing. Most voters have, for decades, favored limiting the cost of campaigns and the amount of fundraising candidates must do.
Those efforts have foundered on court decisions that election spending is equivalent to constitutionally protected free speech. Albuquerque’s public financing program and the proposed changes this year are a response to those decisions, providing public money to candidates rather than limiting spending.
The city first capped spending limits in 1974 for mayoral and city council candidates, keeping a lid on how expensive a campaign could get for more than two decades. That same year campaign finance disclosure requirements were also passed.
The arguments back then are eerily similar to ones made today about the influence of money in politics:
“The office wouldn’t go to the candidate or party that could afford to spend a tubful of money to get him elected. The limits on the amount of spending, in theory at least, will guarantee that every candidate has an equal chance of being elected,” said Chamber of Commerce president Thomas Ryan in favor of the limits to the Albuquerque Journal on February 18, 1974. “… And by the same token, requiring a full independent disclosure should restrain the influence of any contributor on an elected official.”
The spending limits measure won in 1974 in what the Albuquerque Journal called a landslide victory, with about 82 percent of the vote.
Fast forward to 1997.
Mayor Martin Chavez told the Albuquerque Journal in August of that year that caps “give enormous sanity to the election process,” but that they were “clearly unconstitutional.”
Chavez had foregone a re-election bid that year to run for governor. A mayoral candidate, Joe Diaz, had challenged the caps in court as unconstitutional, leading to a temporary ban until Diaz dropped his lawsuit. But the caps were eventually given the boot through another court challenge, just in time for the 2001 election, when Chavez ran for his old seat and won.
In the wake of the removal of Albuquerque’s spending limits, the cost of mayoral races rapidly increased, and skyrocketed in 2005 when Chavez raised almost $1.2 million for his re-election campaign.
One of his opponents was Griego, a sitting city councilor then who now leads NM Working Families. While a mayoral candidate being vastly outspent by Chavez, Griego sponsored an initiative that appeared on that year’s election ballot creating a public financing program. Albuquerque voters approved it with 69 percent of the vote. The new law provided a pot of public money to candidates who could meet qualifying criteria and included a dollar-for-dollar match of private money above that initial payout.
A good chunk of city council candidates took the city up on the new program in 2007 and have continued to do so. City council races are smaller and less expensive, and the public funds available to them are largely sufficient even without the matching provision. The case is different for citywide mayoral races that require candidates to reach many more people with their message.
Mayoral candidates and public financing: A brief embrace
In 2009, all three mayoral candidates opted into the system, including incumbent mayor Martin Chavez, who faced competitors who could match dollar for dollar whatever he raised thanks to the statute’s matching provision. The winner that year was an Albuquerque state representative, Richard Berry.
Then the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 2011 decision and rendered the matching provision obsolete.
In 2013, Berry opted to run for re-election, and won, with private money which significantly exceeded funds of his publicly financed competitor. The lopsided campaign cash of 2013 likely accounts, in part, for why seven of eight mayoral candidates in 2017 didn’t utilize public funding, even those who ran using the public financing system as City Councilors, like Republican Dan Lewis in 2009 and 2013, or those who had strong local networks, like Democrat Brian Colón.
Colón raised more private money than any other candidate in 2017, saying the public financing system wouldn’t give him enough money to be competitive.
“The current system doesn’t provide enough funds for me to effectively communicate my message to the citizens of Albuquerque,” Colón said.
Ultimately, though, raising the most private dollars didn’t propel Colón to victory. Instead, the lone publicly financed candidate, Tim Keller, won.
Keller, at the time state auditor and a former state senator from Albuquerque, had considerable name recognition and a strong volunteer base. His campaign stump speech often led with Keller noting his campaign gathered $5 contributions from 6,000 Albuquerque voters to qualify for public financing.
His victory story isn’t complete, though, without factoring in an independent political committee formed solely to support his bid for mayor, which spent $674,340 through the run-off election. Spending by Keller and that group combined easily outstripped other candidates.
Advocates for public financing say that political committee formed because the current system is broken. And their proposed fix would go a long way toward ending the practice.
“It will minimize the likelihood that large independent expenditures will have to come in on either side,” said Griego, who today is one of the leaders — along with Feldman — of the ballot initiative effort to fix the Albuquerque program. “If you’re publicly financed as a mayoral candidate this would get you into the competitive race.”
What it will cost
The city has a surplus of funds already to pay for the proposed changes because matching dollars have been accumulating in the public financing fund for years without being spent, according to proponents. Otherwise, the cost of public financing during elections every two years will be factored into the annual city budgeting process, based on estimates provided by the city clerk.
Knowing the cost of an increase to $1.75 per registered voter for mayoral candidates is pretty straightforward. The city will pay that amount minus any seed money raised by the candidate. For the general election in 2017, candidate Tim Keller received $342,952 from the city, which was $1 per registered voter minus the small donations he’d collected during the qualifying period. The number of registered voters was an estimated 380,200 in the spring of 2017, as a working number for candidates getting their campaigns underway. The actual number of registered voters was much less, at 335,911.
Had the proposed changes been in place by then, he would have received roughly $600,000, which is $1.75 per registered voter minus estimated seed money he would have collected. The total amount he’d be allowed — about $665,350 — would have placed him much closer, but he still wouldn’t have exceeded, the top fundraiser, Brian Colón.
But Keller also would have had the potential of padding his campaign account with Democracy Dollars.
The payout from the coupons is capped at the amount of money each candidate receives initially, allowing them in theory to double their pot of money. But to maximize that potential, candidates would have to convince enough voters to assign them their $25 coupon. The idea is that rather than convincing a small set of large donors to support a campaign, the candidate instead would have to talk to a lot of Albuquerque residents, who’d have $25 each to give.
But gathering enough coupons to double their pot of money would be a substantial task for candidates. Some hopefuls for both the city council and mayor’s office have complained since 2009 about the difficulty they have collecting $5 donations from one percent of registered voters, which is a criteria for gaining public financing.
If the same holds true for Democracy Dollars, it’s likely qualified candidates would gather just a percentage of the coupons they are allowed, and consequently the cost to the city less than the maximum allowed before the cap is reached.