Campaign finance goes public in Connecticut

Failed Mass. efforts didn't deter political candidates

By Gregory B. Hladky
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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HARTFORD - Five years after Massachusetts ended a disastrous experiment with publicly funded political campaigns, Connecticut is trying its own reform, with more promising results.

An overwhelming majority of legislative candidates - 270 of 331 - have chosen to take about $5.75 million to run their campaigns from Connecticut's new Citizens' Election Fund, established after a string of highly publicized political influence scandals rocked the state.

Some election officials and lawmakers had worried that Connecticut's effort could follow the path of Massachusetts' 1998 Clean Elections law, which faltered under poor funding and low candidate participation. But the eagerness of candidates in Connecticut to eschew special interest donations and accept public money, along with spending limits, has raised hope.

"There's a lot of questions still to be answered," state Senator Donald J. DeFronzo, a Democrat from New Britain said of his state's program. "But it's been performing reasonably well in its maiden voyage and hopefully it can be a model."

Despite the early successes, some officials said, the law still faces major tests in 2010, when the government will have to pay for far more expensive campaigns for governor and other statewide offices. The higher-stakes races could also challenge candidates' willingness to submit to spending limits.

Statewide races present such large hurdles that some lawmakers said declarations of success need to wait.

"I think it's way too early to make a judgment," said Themis Klarides of Derby, a deputy minority leader in the Connecticut House.

Still, Connecticut's system is off to a better start than Massachusetts' public campaign finance law, which was mired in problems almost from the time voters overwhelmingly approved it in the flush economic times of 1998. By the time the law was ready for implementation in 2002, the economy had turned and a hostile Legislature refused to fund it. The state Supreme Judicial Court intervened, ordering the sale of state property to provide money. Auctions brought only dribbles of cash, and reform advocates eventually resorted to the hope of selling the House speaker's office furniture.

In the 2002 election season, the first and last time the law was used, only a handful of legislative candidates and a single statewide candidate opted for public funds under the law. Clean Elections was repealed in 2003.

Connecticut officials say there are key differences in their state's program. The system is being funded through the sale of abandoned and unclaimed assets and properties that have come into the state's possession.

"There is an extraordinary amount of that," said Beth Rotman, executive director of Connecticut's campaign finance office.

Rotman, a former deputy general counsel for New York City's public campaign financing program, said Connecticut's unclaimed property revenues provide about $15 million a year to the Citizens' Election Fund. This year's legislative campaigns could cost $10 million.

To qualify for $25,000 in public campaign funds, major party House candidates must raise $5,000 in small contributions and agree to a $30,000 spending cap. Senate candidates can receive $85,000 by raising $15,000 on their own and limiting spending to $100,000. Third party candidates must also collect signatures, a way to vet fringe candidates, officials said. A highly controversial provision allows unopposed candidates to qualify for public funds, up to 30 percent of the amounts allotted to candidates in contested races.

The law came after major influence peddling scandals in the state, including federal investigations several years ago of former Governor John G. Rowland for improperly receiving gifts from state contractors and political contributors. He served time in federal prison until February 2006.

Under strong public pressure, Connecticut's Democratic Legislature and Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell bickered over the reforms for months.

Rell finally broke the deadlock by reversing her opposition to public financing. As part of the deal, reluctant Democratic leaders were forced to accept Rell's demand that the system cover legislative as well as statewide candidates.

"I was always opposed to public financing of campaigns," Rell said in a recent interview. "But we were so close to getting rid of the influence of special interest groups that I finally agreed."

Rell said early indications from candidates are positive. "Already I'm hearing from people, 'I like this - it's an even playing field.' "

But Rell is not convinced the new system can block the flow of contributions from lobbyists and state contractors. "I want to see how this plays out," she said. "There's some unknown territory right now."

That is also a worry for Andy Sauer, executive director of Common Cause Connecticut. He said one fear is that special interests will provide campaign services to candidates as a way to gain influence.

"It's a genuine concern," he said. "It's happening all over the country. . . . There is a worry that some of the money could be hidden."

He said new safeguards are in place and that Connecticut's beefed-up Elections Enforcement Commission can effectively monitor where candidates are getting their money.

The system needs some tweaks to make it work, officials said, including tighter deadlines for candidates to qualify. Campaign spending restrictions on non-candidate groups also need to be clarified, they said.

So far, one candidate has been barred from participating because of a rules violation. State Senator Joseph J. Crisco, a Democrat from Woodbridge, admitted allowing a secretary to sign his campaign treasurer's name to a sworn affidavit promising to abide by all election laws.

"My treasurer, who has since resigned, was out of state," Crisco said. "I thought it was acceptable."

The program's boosters, including Common Cause's Sauer, believe the system is succeeding in its main objective to reduce the influence of lobbyists and state contractors.

"The whole system has changed dramatically," Sauer said.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause of Massachusetts, thinks Connecticut's system would be "a great model" for her state. "But that doesn't necessarily mean it will fly here," she said.

Adopting Connecticut's system might help, but it would not resolve all the opposition to public financing, Wilmot said. She said the bitter Massachusetts fight over public financing left scars that have not healed. 'We kind of have post-traumatic stress syndrome," she said. "It was very, very tough."

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