Campaign-finance reform vibrant at local level, supporters say

Friday, December 18, 1998

When campaign-finance initiatives fail in Congress, reform supporters say they look toward Albuquerque, N.M. — the only major U.S. city with a campaign spending ceiling — for inspiration.

Despite the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Buckley v. Valeo, which banned campaign spending limits, Albuquerque's ordinance skirted all legal challenges until last year. A mayoral candidate won an injunction against the city last year, but after his bid was unsuccessful he dropped his suit and the limits were restored.

“Albuquerque is a real discovery because it gives us a chance to see how these limits really operate in practice,” said Brenda Wright, an attorney with the National Voting Rights Institute, which defended the city against the challenge to the limits.

“And the limits have had a very good success rate in Albuquerque,” Wright said. “They've never had an incumbent mayor re-elected, so there have been very competitive elections. And they have high voter turnout.”

Presidential scandals and Iraqi crises aside, campaign finance reform efforts in Washington generated a lot of national interest this year. But efforts to impose new contribution limits, specifically on unregulated donations to political parties, failed in the Senate last September.

But reform supporters say Buckley doesn't prevent lawmakers from imposing reasonable campaign contribution limits. However, they contend real changes aren't happening at the federal level and not even at the state level, but in cities like Albuquerque. At the local level, city leaders can often draft restrictions and not worry about facing legal challenges.

“We're not fooling ourselves. Washington isn't going to take the lead on this,” said Eric Schmeltzer of Public Campaign, a nonprofit group supporting change in the way political campaigns are funded. “It really has to be come from the bottom up.

“And I think we're getting into a grass-roots movement here,” Schmeltzer said. “These are people who are sick and tired of the system and they are saying, 'Why can't we do something in our town?' I think it's great that people are taking control of their own systems.”

Currently, 77 of the nation's municipalities keep campaign finance laws on their books, said Ric Bainter, director of the National Civic League's New Politics Program.

According to Bainter, most of the laws simply limit contributions and require full disclosure from candidates. But he said the laws can range from public financing systems to restraints on when and where candidates may campaign.

Bainter said that most of the laws were adopted after 1990 “so there is definitely a trend at the local level.” He attributes the rise in such local ordinances to a public disenfranchised with a Congress that refuses to address the issue.

“I think part of it is that people who believe in campaign finance reform are being frustrated at the national level so they are turning their attention to the states and municipalities,” Bainter said. “Of course, local elections are becoming more expensive just like state and national elections.”

Bainter says his research has found that the municipalities which draft such laws are ones facing significant growth. Citizens troubled over the influence developers hold with their local governments try to control elections so their governments won't be dominated by business interests, he said.

But wouldn't local ordinances — just as state and federal laws do — be subject to First Amendment scrutiny?

After all, some say the U.S. Supreme Court, with its decision in Buckley, equated campaign spending with free speech. State and federal lawmakers, as well as the courts, have effectively used that decision to kill efforts to limit spending in political campaigns.

Yes, the First Amendment applies to local ordinances, Bainter said, but few bother to challenge them. He attributes the lack of challenges to the relative closeness between voters and local candidates.

“They are more aware of what candidates are doing in their campaigns,” he said. “That makes it much harder for a candidate to oppose something like campaign finance reform, which is generally pretty popular.”

In fact, a mayoral candidate in Albuquerque who successfully secured a court injunction against the city's campaign limits last year, was soundly defeated. Republican Joe Diaz challenged the $79,000 spending limit as unconstitutional. Diaz dropped his case last August, allowing the city to restore the limits.

While public opinion polls show many people want the limits, the courts have routinely determined that laws — whether federal, state or city — don't pass constitutional muster if they impose spending limits or very restrictive contribution limits.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in Kruse v. Cincinnati, which lets stand a lower court decision barring Cincinnati from imposing spending limits on local candidates.

The 1995 ordinance limited City Council candidates to spend no more than $140,000, about three times a council member's salary. Because of litigation, the ordinance never took effect. Sometime this month, the council may vote to repeal the rest of the ordinance that limits contributions to council candidates to $1,000 by an individual, $2,500 by a political action committee and $10,000 by a political party.

But the National Voting Rights Institute's Wright, who represented Cincinnati in the cases, says the defeat of the ordinance by no means signals the end to municipal campaign finance reform.

“I'm not sure that is the ultimate determination here. You have to understand that the Kruse case is the first one in 22 years that directly asks the court to readdress the limits in Buckley,” Wright said. “So it's not terribly surprising that the Supreme Court wouldn't take the first case down the pike.”

Wright says there are several other challenges nearing the high court and other potential lawsuits that could weave their way there. She notes that the American Civil Liberties Union promises to challenge a mandatory spending limits bill Vermont passed last year.

In another related case, three councilmen have filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging Akron, Ohio's contribution limits to council and mayoral candidates. During the November general election, Akron voters approved a proposal limiting cash contributions to candidates to $25 per person.

“What all of this means is that the Supreme Court will soon have other opportunities to consider this issue,” Wright said.