Clean elections for Greensboro
As the most fiercely contested presidential primary in recent memory winds down, let’s remind ourselves that democracy is a participatory sport; no matter who wins and loses, it’s satisfying when political campaigns resonate, even remotely, with voters’ concerns.
Bringing politics down to the local level – which is, after all, our most direct point of access – we suggest a serious hearing for Greensboro Citizens for Clean Elections’ recent call for publicly financed municipal elections.
The way electoral politics typically works is that prospective candidates consult with well-heeled and politically connected supporters before announcing a run for office. In the early days of the campaign they court donors while playing coy about their agenda to the press and ordinary citizens. Then they plaster the city with advertising and yard signs, deploying last-minute gut punches to opponents if money alone doesn’t carry them over. Before anyone really knows what the election was about, the deal is done.
As Greensboro Citizens for Clean Elections points out, it’s mainly developers and other real estate interests that make the high-dollar donations to municipal candidates. Elected bodies’ solicitous attention to developers’ desires, resignation and passivity by the electorate, and lifeless discourse on land-use policy have been the predictable outcomes. That’s just the way things have been done.
As Marlene Sanford, president of the Triad Real Estate & Building Industry Coalition, or TREBIC, told YES! Weekly last year: “You’re going to naturally see campaign contributions coming from people who are affected by whatever level of government it is. The vast majority of what local government does is regulate real estate.”
Just as winds of political change now sweep the nation, so too does Greensboro teeter at the brink of a potential shift. The victorious candidate for mayor, Yvonne Johnson, set a new record last year by raising almost $100,000, and total campaign fundraising nearly tripled from the previous municipal election in 2005. It must be noted that while it’s the exception and not the rule, energetic candidates do sometimes prevail over better-funded rivals: at-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw did so last year, as did Mayor Keith Holliday and District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small in 2003. The old consensus regime is collapsing in Greensboro. What better opportunity to prime a vigorous marketplace of ideas?
Skeptics speculate that public financing would encourage more gadfly candidates like David Crawford, who has gained notoriety for erratic and rambling debate performances, plagiarism and communicating by phone and e-mail under fictitious identities. At this writing, the results are not in for the primary election, through which Crawford seeks an at-large Guilford County School Board seat, but we should consider that when he ran for city council last year, incumbent Mike Barber handily whipped him by a 65-percent margin. And what are we missing by keeping the field narrowed to the current stable of elected officials closely vetted by a tight network of wealthy donors?
It would work like this: The General Assembly would pass legislation enabling Greensboro to use public financing, and then the city would set the parameters for the program, such as how much money candidates could receive, and how much they would have to raise on their own to qualify. The threshold could be as high or as low as we wanted it. The idea enjoys support across the political spectrum; proponents include former city council candidates Joe Wilson, a conservative Republican, and Joe Venable, a progressive advocate for the poor.
“I think I had a very good message to give to the people of Greensboro, and don’t believe I lost my campaign for lack of a message or lack of a platform,” said Venable, who was eliminated in the primary last year, “but I believe I lost my campaign for lack of funds to get my platform across to the whole city.”
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