Citizen’s Elections Are Underway in Connecticut

Dan Malloy has done something extraordinary, and something nobody else in Connecticut politics has done before him. In his quest to obtain the Democratic Party nomination to run for Governor of Connecticut, the former Stamford Mayor has raised more than $250,000 in over 4,000 small individual donations of $100 or less. That’s quite an accomplishment. Imagine the effort required to raise that number of small donations in a matter of months –the cocktail parties set up by countless hosts across the state, crisscrossing the state to attend those events, the paperwork required to track each donation; it’s mind boggling.

What Malloy has done is an embodiment of the “public financing” system of reforms enacted in 2005 but now in effect for the first time in Connecticut statewide elections. The system was enacted in as a response to the numerous political scandals in Connecticut that involved many high level officials and resulted in Governor John Rowland going to federal prison.

As part of this “Citizen’s Election Program,” as it is officially titled, Malloy will now have up to $8.5 million to spend in the 23 weeks of the campaign that begin the day after the Democratic State Convention, which will be held this weekend in Hartford.

The courts have struggled with how to regulate money in politics for many years. It’s a balancing act. Appellate judges are always balancing–weighing– one right against another.  Such a balancing act has been going on in American courts with the regulation of money in politics; it has always been on a collision course with the free speech guarantees afforded Americans by the First Amendment.

It was an inevitable showdown, when Congress in 1974 strengthened the Federal Elections Campaign Act, enacting campaign contribution limits as a response to the Nixon-era Watergate scandals of the 1970’s.  Last year’s controversial U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizen’s United vs. F.E.C., therefore, was not a surprise, but a continuation of the review of free speech rights of individuals and corporations which started in 1976 in the case of Buckley vs. Valeo.  The court in that case ruled that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and that candidates can give unlimited amounts of money to their own campaigns. A reform system was created as a result of Buckley whereby campaign spending limits were constitutional and allowed, as long as some form of public financing mechanism is in place, with strict contribution limits as well. The spending limits, however, only apply to the candidates who voluntarily opt to accept the public money. The system cannot be mandatory under Buckley and the cases that followed it, because if it were mandatory it would be an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, according to the Court.

From 1981 to 1983, as Executive Director of Common Cause/NY, I lobbied hard for this type of reform in New York State elections.

Connecticut adopted the public financing system of reforms for both statewide and legislative elections, and the system is now underway statewide races; several candidates who have access to personal wealth, like Democratic candidate Ned Lamont or Republican candidate Tom Foley, have chosen not to participate in the system and do not have to abide by the spending limits.

For those who have access to wealthy donors who can write big checks, the temptation not to volunteer for the populist style reform system is great. For those who have personal wealth and can just fund the campaign themselves, the temptation is even greater. In doing so, however, they will not be able to make the claims that Malloy can make, that he has chosen a “clean” method of financing his campaign, has freed up his time to concentrate on the issues that are important to voters, and has done something to help reign in skyrocketing campaign costs.

What Malloy has done has earned him considerable bragging rights: his campaign has the appearance of being one supported by and for the people, and lots of them, and in politics that’s saying a lot.

Dr. James D. Diamond