Millionaires or Bozos?


Campaign finance, bad choices, and the law of unintended consequences

Quick: Name the Republican candidate in the 2011 Philadelphia Mayoral General Election. If the name Karen Brown does not come immediately to mind, you’re probably not alone.

Karen Brown was, in every respect, the least qualified candidate ever to run for mayor of Philadelphia on either major party ticket. A patronage employee fired from the Commissioner’s Office who spent her off-hours as a Democratic committeeperson is not exactly the CV one is looking for a Republican mayoral candidate. Her one claim to fame, since getting crushed by Michael Nutter 75 percent to 22 percent (the Independent candidate garnered 3 percent) has been to lose a claim, filed against her by her former campaign manager, on Judge Judy.

Some have argued that the rise of Karen Brown was the result of an internecine battle between the Republican group the Young Turks, led by then candidate, now City Commissioner, Al Schmidt, and the Old Guard led by party leader Michael Meehan. But the Young Turks fielded perhaps the second least qualified candidate, John Featherman. This real estate agent turned perennial candidate (he has run for everything from clerk of quarter sessions to representative to state senator) had his own claim to fame: a web ad called “The Naked Truth” featuring a naked woman—now there’s a statesman.

One could argue that Michael Nutter had such a strong first term in the mayor’s office that his job performance scared away a credible Republican opponent. But in February 2011—at a time when the Republican candidates were circulating their nominating petitions—Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall “State of City Poll” found that “about 34 percent of the residents of the city would rate the mayor’s job performance as positive, compared to 66 percent who would rate the job performance as fair or poor.” These numbers do not scare away strong candidates, they encourage them.

So why, at a time when Mayor Nutter was perhaps at his weakest electorally, did nobody real step up to the plate to take a swing at him? The answer does not lie in the strength of the players, it lies in the rules of the game: rules redefined by the city’s campaign finance laws, rules which have led to dangerous unintended consequences.

Tom Knox was the first unintended consequence. In the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary, he used the newly passed campaign finance laws in an attempt to buy the mayor’s office. Understanding that the field—comprised of current and former elected officials who could not self-finance a campaign nor, under the new rules, raise any significant funds to match him—Knox pushed his campaign war chest to $12 million. The other campaigns’ spending paled in comparison, and within weeks of launching his television campaign, Knox took the lead. His defeat, caused by a background in predatory lending and a withering assault by the Philadelphia Inquirer, came despite these laws not because of them. Perhaps this is the first unintended consequence of strict campaign finance caps.

Self-funders now have a unique advantage in positioning themselves as candidates for mayor. For those who believe that the millionaire exception—the doubling of contribution limits when one candidate contributes more than $250,000 to a campaign—somehow undercuts the built-in self-funder advantage, think again: It did not close the gap in 2007, when the field included two congressmen, the ranking state house member on the appropriations committee, and a former city councilman. If these political powerhouses couldn’t close the gap after the millionaires’ exception was triggered, who can?

The second law of unintended consequences is represented by Karen Brown. Strict contribution caps, particularly when applied to partners of entities doing business or contemplating doing business with the city, lead to non-competitive races. And that is a threat to responsive government.

Soon City Council will debate attempts to modify the city’s campaign finance laws by prohibiting council members from collecting sums above the limits prior to declaring their candidacy and force disclosure of donors by independent committees seeking to influence a city election. Let us sidestep the question of the dubious constitutionality of these measures as defined by the Supreme Court in its Citizens United decision. Neither of these measures serves to address the fundamental problem created by our campaign finance laws: They serve to protect financially strong private citizens and politically weak incumbent politicians at the expense of the rest of us.

Millionaires or Bozos?

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Liberty City Press is an independent weekly newspaper distributed by the Philadelphia Multi-Cultural Media Network whose members include Philadelphia Sunday Sun, The Philadelphia Gay News, Al Dia, The Metro Chinese Weekly and The Metro Viet News.

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