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Blessed are the wealthy

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Among talk of who’s blessed to be flush with cash and who’s not, Chapel Hill’s proposed plan for voter-owned elections received substantial support from citizens and most town council members at a May 14 public hearing. (Read the proposal, PDF, 31 KB.)

Town Council will consider the citizen input, then vote on the ordinance June 9.

If approved, candidates who wish to opt in to the voluntary program, which would run through the 2009 and 2011 election cycles, would be eligible for $3,000 in public grants if they meet certain criteria.

To qualify for the program, town council candidates would be required to collect $5-$20 from 75 people eligible to vote in Chapel Hill; these are called “qualified contributions.” The candidates would be allowed to raise $750 in seed money and receive up to $2,250 in qualified contributions.

Mayoral candidates would have higher signature thresholds—150—and would receive more public grant money—$9,000.

There are also additional campaign finance reporting requirements for both non-participating and participating candidates; these extra reports would give voters more information about contributions candidates receive shortly before Election Day.

The program would cost the town $50,000, which would come from the general fund. The State Board of Elections would oversee the program.

Vicki Boyer, chairwoman of the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Orange, Durham and Chatham counties told Council that the group supports publicly financed elections “so not only the personally wealthy can run.”

The council’s lone dissenter on the proposal, first-termer Matt Czajkowski, called the program unnecessary—and expensive in light of Chapel Hill’s budgetary needs. “I see no evidence there is funding from special interests,” said Czajkowski, who loaned himself more than $17,000 to run for office last year.

“I think the significant issue is our voter turnout; it’s 15 percent,” he added. “The overall electorate is not engaged in the political process in Chapel Hill.”

However, Czajkowski acknowledged he did not vote in municipal elections before running for office: “I wasn’t engaged.”

(Nor had he attended many, if any, Town Council meetings.)

As for his ability to bankroll his own campaign, Czajkowski said he was “blessed to have been able to.

“Am I the tip of the iceberg of a trend of wealthy people buying elections?” he asked. “While not many people have funds they can apply the way I did, I don’t owe any single party for any favor.”

Laurin Easthom, who was elected to her first term in 2005, countered Czajkowski, saying, “I do see it as a problem; not everybody is as lucky as you are, Matt. This levels the playing field. I know there are people who feel that finances are an impediment to running for town council.”

Jason Baker, who unsuccessfully ran for council in 2005, agreed that funding was an issue during his campaign. “It’s daunting and difficult for someone who doesn’t have ties in to a larger network of donors” he said, adding he would the signature threshold to be reduced to 50 people.

“That was my case. I didn’t have friends who could write large checks. And I couldn’t do it myself.”

Czajkowski’s Republican ally, Kevin Wolff, who has twice unsuccessfully run for mayor, also opposes the proposal because he believes it favors incumbents. “If was merely to help the disadvantaged and the poor, I’d be in favor, but it allows incumbents to take public funds and sit in their seat. And unless people are completely dissatisfied, you won’t be able to get them out of office.”

Oddly, Wolff criticized Chapel Hill’s Democratic Party, calling it “the 10,000 pound gorilla in this room,” even though his wife, Mary, ran as a Democrat this year for Orange County Commission.

Although Chapel Hill’s individual contribution limits—$200—inhibit candidates from receiving huge cash infusions from outside interests, big money still influences public policy. Orange County’s referendum on the land transfer tax failed after the real-estate and home builder lobbies spent $250,000 on an anti-tax campaign.

“That is no different than buying the office,” said Mayor Kevin Foy, who is serving his fourth term. “To the extent we can take actions to limit influence of money, we should do that.”

This story originally listed Czajkowski as a Republican; he registered as unaffiliated.

See also: "Chapel Hill weighs publicly financed elections"

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