The Washington, D.C. Council passed legislation last week authorizing publicly financed campaigns, a move that comes in the middle of the 2018 D.C. mayoral campaign season.
Dubbed the Fair Elections Act, the bill would allow candidates to receive 5-to-1 matching funds from the city if they restrict their fundraising to only city residents, with individual donations not to exceed $50. The legislation would also only apply to mayoral, attorney general, D.C. council and school board candidates.
Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) and Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) introduced the most recent iteration of the bill after multiple previous attempts to pass the bill in earlier council periods.
Erik Salmi, the communications director for Allen, said this bill has the potential to change the way candidates campaign and interact with their constituents.
“It’s going to change the incentives for candidates for office to spend more of their time with D.C. residents rather than dialing for dollars with the more typical older, whiter, wealthier audiences who can afford to make a maximum donation,” Salmi said.
Supporters of the bill, such as James Butler, a candidate in the 2018 D.C. mayoral race, also believe it would give more power to smaller donors and local candidates, helping to level the playing field against wealthier and more established candidates.
“Fair elections would give a voice and a chance to candidates like myself by the city matching contributions of those small donors,” Butler said.
However, the bill has also garnered some opposition, most notably from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). LaToya Foster, a spokeswoman for Bowser, said she believes the funds necessary to finance the bill are a waste of taxpayer money.
“With so many pressing needs for residents, it is not prudent to divert tax dollars from hiring more police, investing in housing or fixing our roads to paying for robocalls, negative attack ads and donor receptions,” Foster wrote in an email to The Hoya.
In response to the criticism, Salmi said the impact that the allocation of funds would have on the budget is small in comparison to the lasting benefits the bill would bring to D.C. voters.
“D.C. already spends quite a bit of money on our election system,” Salmi said. “To say it’s a waste of taxpayer money, I just don’t think it’s a fair criticism of investing in the health of our democracy, and opening it up to more people, and really ensuring that D.C. voters trust that this is a process they can get behind.”
The legislation likely will not take effect until the 2020 elections, but its recent passing in council comes ahead of the 2018 D.C. mayoral election, for which Bowser has already announced her bid for re-election.
The District’s Democratic primary race is often a good indicator of the outcome of the general election, because of D.C.’s strong Democratic leanings. Aside from Bowser, there are a number of declared candidates, including James Butler, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for Ward 5; Manley Collins, an AmeriCorps service member; and Michael Christian Woods, a 19-year-old student at The George Washington University.
Apart from the Democratic challengers, independent candidate Dustin Canter has also declared. As an independent, he highlighted some of the difficulties in running a serious campaign.
Running against an incumbent mayor poses a series of challenges, one of the largest being fundraising, according to Butler. Bowser has already raised close to $2 million for her 2018 campaign and is on track to match or exceed her 2014 sum. Butler said it was difficult competing against someone so established with the ability to raise large sums of money.
“Money is the big challenge,” Butler said. “A lot of people know that these records become public, so they’re a little bit reticent to give because they don’t want their name placed on the public campaign roll.”