Recently, the right wing Civitas Institute directed one of their interns to write up a misinformed attack on Chapel Hill's pioneering voter-owned elections (VOE) program ("Public Financing Folly," Chapel Hill News, Feb. 28). Why are far-right conservatives so threatened by campaign finance reform? Maybe because it means their well-financed propaganda will be less likely to buy elections for favored candidates, even in low-turnout local elections.
Like what's happened in Wake County, where a conservative school board majority was elected last fall when only 31,000 out of 572,000 registered voters showed up at the polls. The Civitas Insitute's board chair, far-right businessman Bob Luddy, was the single largest individual contributor to the campaigns of the four newly elected, Republican-backed school board members.
On Nov. 3, Chapel Hill voters showed their support for voter-owned elections. Both candidates who agreed to limit their campaign spending and participated in the VOE program finished first in their races for Mayor (Mark Kleinschmidt) and Town Council (Penny Rich). Three out of four candidates who vocally opposed the program, refused to limit spending, and accepted unlimited campaign donations were defeated by voters.
Rich and Kleinschmidt on election night
One VOE opponent was Town Council candidate Matt Pohlman, who said, "I'm not sure I can get behind voter-owned elections." Another was his fellow Council challenger Jon DeHart, who claimed it was "taxation without representation." Pohlman and DeHart lost the election. Besides voting for candidates who supported VOE, polls and surveys have shown most citizens of Chapel Hill favor campaign finance reform.
During the 2009 elections, Chapel Hill became the first-ever community east of the Mississippi to conduct a voter-owned election. The program leveled the electoral playing field and helped reduce the influence of big money. Since then, Raleigh, Wilmington, and Greenville have all passed resolutions asking the N.C. General Assembly for approval to implement VOE programs.
The mayoral candidate who most vocally opposed public financing was first term Council member Matt Czajkowski. And no wonder. Czajkowski raised more than $36,500 from wealthy backers like UNC Health Care CEO Bill Roper, and spent $35,000 of it.
Commenting shortly after the election, Town Council top vote-getter Penny Rich said, "This is what voter-owned elections are supposed to curb. $30,000 to become mayor? It's just an outrageous amount of money."
In the six days leading up to the Nov. 3 vote, Czajkowski spent nearly ten thousand dollars ($9,703), more than six times the $1,523 Kleinschmidt spent during that same period. Czajkowski desperately tried to buy the election, just as he first bought his Town Council seat in 2007 by spending the then-record sum of $20,000.
Kleinschmidt and Czajkowski
That year, ninety percent of his cash, or $17,750, was money he loaned his own campaign. Czajkowski's spending was more than the other three victorious Council candidates spent combined. Foreshadowing his '09 tactics, in a last-minute flurry he blew through $15,000 in the ten days before the 2007 election.
At the time, local activists had been fighting for nearly a decade to enact campaign finance reform in Chapel Hill. The cash flood by Czajkowski in 2007 was such a blatant display of the power of money to sway local elections that it helped convince the Town Council to commit to the voter-owned elections pilot. It was approved 8-1, with only Czajkowski opposed.
Now we know the VOE program works, and most Chapel Hill voters are behind it. And its success here is spreading. Propaganda machines like the Civitas Institute can make all the noise they want, but savvy voters will continue to support candidates who recognize the value of voter-owned elections.