Friday, July 29, 2005

Cincinnati's Ongoing Battle Against Wealth-Dominated Elections

As Kevin Osborne reports in the Cincinnati Post, candidates for Cincinnati's city council and mayor can now contribute up to $2,500 to the committees of other candidates, according to the recent ruling by the city's Elections Commission. The Commission voted to allow the contributions after U.S. District Judge Sandra Beckwith struck down the ban on cross-candidate contributions in the city's 2001 campaign finance reform law.

One time City Council candidate Pete Witte filed a lawsuit against the ban on cross-campaign contributions in fall 2003, alleging the outright ban violated free speech rights. Witte's lawyer, Chris Finney, went a little further than that, once referring to supporters of the ban as "anti-free speech Stalinists."

I'm not sure what that says about Cincinnati voters, who approved the ban as part of the 2001 campaign finance referendum. I never knew southern Ohio to be a hotbed of Stalinism, but there you go. One man's effort to create a level playing field for fair elections is another man's gulag, I guess.

Under the 2001 voter-approved law, candidates can accept up to $1,000 from a contributor for the primary, and another $1,000 for the general election campaign. $2,000 is a boatload of money for most folks, way more than they can afford to give to a politician. If anything, a law which allows rich folks to dominate the political process through hefty campaign contributions deprives the rest of us of our rightful say in elections.

Cincinnati has seen other court battles over campaign finance reform in the past. In 1994, fundraising for city council candidates had gotten so out of control, the City Council voted to instate a spending cap of $145,000 for candidates for the council. A twice-unsuccessful candidate named John Kruse sued, and got the limits overturned. Kruse's lawyer: Chris Finney.

Although he didn't invoke Stalin, Finney's comments then were just as off base as his Stalin comment above: "Spending is speech," he said at the time. "The (large) amount of money means there's more speech." Meaning of course, more speech for people who can afford to give more money. How very democratic.

The state of Vermont has passed a law with spending limits for state candidates, much like the city of Cincinnati did ten years ago for its city council races. This time, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the limits. The US Supreme Court is currently considering whether to take up the case, an action supported by Vermont despite its victory at the appellate level. TheRestofUs.org has filed an amicus brief encouraging the Court to hear the case and uphold the Second Circuit's ruling, so that Vermont and Cincinnati and other cities and states around the country have the freedom to combat the pervasive influence of big money on elections and government as they see fit.

And that freedom ain't red, Mr. Finney - it's red, white, and blue.

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