October 28, 2017

Candidates Answer Questions About Election Finance

What steps would you take to take to address campaign finance issues and external influences in your first year in city council?

Dennis Carlone: During most of my time on the Council (2013-17) I had the opportunity to promote public funding for Council elections. I am an advocate for public funding for many reasons. However, both times publicly funded elections were discussed in Council, the measure was stopped one way or another. I am very disappointed that, last month, a single councillor effectively killed a proposed ballot question on publicly financed municipal elections via procedural maneuvers. Now, unfortunately, we do not have publicly financed elections in Cambridge and we will not even have the opportunity to vote on whether we want them via a ballot question in the upcoming election. I will continue to be a proponent for common sense public funding of campaigns at the city council level and beyond. One of my colleagues submitted legislation to require all special interest lobbyists who lobby the council must register with the city. Even though it did not pass, I am proud to have voted for it and would support similar policies in the future. I believe we should limit the total amount of money a city council candidate could raise per election cycle. I am also open to considering a time limit on campaign season for municipal elections which, in theory, could provide another avenue towards limiting the amount of money that finds its way into our local elections.

Olivia D’Ambrosio: I would encourage a revival of the nonbinding ballot initiative and press my fellow councillors to support it. I would also press for a campaign spending limit. That’s just for starters…

Jan Devereux: In my first year in office, 2016, I sponsored a policy order to ask that municipal lobbyists be required to register and disclose their business with the city. The order was referred to the Government Operations Committee and the Committee Chair has not scheduled a hearing. I will continue to be an advocate for campaign finance reform and restrictions on lobbying if re-elected for another term. A candidate running for re-election to City Council in NYC (Keith Powers) has a detailed list of “sunlight” reforms that are worth considering and possibly adapting to Cambridge.

Gregg Moree: I would support a publicly funded campaign.

Nadya Okamoto: In my first year in city council, I will make a strident effort to require more transparency with any campaign finance, this includes both expenditure, and revenue in terms of the alliances that donors have and a look into how much candidates are contributing to their own campaigns themselves; and I would also push for public financing of local campaigns here. The high level of transparency that I would demand would carry on throughout every city councilor’s time serving their term as well. If records reflect that a councilor has accepted special interest funds, then they should reconsider their capacity to participate in any voting around agreements with said special interest contributor — this is especially the case when it comes to any discussions and voting around real estate developments and housing policy. I will fight for a public financing option that would ensure that viable candidates would be supported enough to run well thought out campaigns focused on the true mission of serving the Cambridge community.

Vatsady Sivongxay: I would explore models that have worked in urban and diverse cities, if applicable. I also would hold community meetings to hear more from Cambridge residents about this issue.

Bryan Sutton: I would garner public support, work with the city manager and push the City Council to (1) publicly fund local elections, (2) prohibit fund raising during city hall service hours, (3) require a 5 year cool off from an elected position to a lobbying firm or developer, (4) actively pressure MA for automatic registration with RMV and (5) mandate landlords give new renters voter registration applications.

Gwen Volmar: Because of the size of the average candidate pool in Cambridge and the nature of the campaign process (e.g. all candidates run at large), campaigns in Cambridge are expensive. In order to be effective in leveling the playing-field, a publicly-funded campaign model would need to be consistently well funded. In my first year as City Councilor, I would work together with the City Manager to identify a sustainable funding source which can be dedicated for this purpose in perpetuity and a robust process for qualifying for city funds to be used toward a political campaign.

Quinton Zondervan: I would put forth a policy order in support of publicly financed elections.

Do you have any concerns with the way City Council campaigns are financed in Cambridge, and if so, what do you think is the most significant issue?

Dennis Carlone: Absolutely. My chief concern is the effect of contributions from real estate developers and related parties who have business before the council. No matter what some of my council colleagues say about these donations having no affect on their voting behavior, it still creates an inappropriate relationship that could directly or indirectly affect a councillor’s opinion. This is why I have always returned any contributions that come from large real estate/developer interests. The city council is supposed to serve the public good and not the whims of a private company who stands to profit off the community’s assets. Nothing beyond the subject matter and related policy details  of a proposal or petition submitted to the council should determine whether zoning relief or other desired outcome is granted.

Olivia D’Ambrosio: I am concerned that there is no limit on fundraising / spending. I am concerned that our fundraising-based campaign system repels potentially great City Councillors from running. I am concerned that fundraising-based campaigns distract incumbents from doing the job our tax money pays them to do. I am concerned that fundraising-based campaigns allow candidates to be bought or otherwise compromised.

Jan Devereux: Large donations from individuals and PACs with a commercial financial interest in the council’s decisions contribute to the perception of influence. One question asked about contributions from people who are not registered voters; some candidates receive a very high percentage of donations from non-residents. Rather than a blanket restriction, I might suggest limiting non-resident contributions to 10% in recognition that people who work in Cambridge or own property here have a legitimate interest in good governance. I also would like to clarify my response on donations from “charter school backers” — “backer” is a vague term. I did not accept donations from PACs lobbying for the charter school ballot question last year and I did not seek the endorsement of Democrats for Education Reform. However I was employed at a charter school in Cambridge from 2012-15 and have received a handful of donations from personal friends who work at the school or are board members.

Gregg Moree: I think that there may be too much special interest money.

Nadya Okamoto: In my personal opinion, any external influencers that have the slightest of potential special interest (especially in terms of income) should not be considered acceptable. I think that there is so much more need for campaign finance reform here both because of the massive amounts of special interest dollars that candidates are often currently taking, but also the massive amounts spent on municipal campaign themselves in the first place — fundraising time that could otherwise be spent focusing on local issues and innovating ways to better serve the community.

Vatsady Sivongxay: My concern with the campaign finance is people with access to large financial resources start out ahead of those who do not have access to financial resources thus the system is not equal and not all candidates start at a level playing field.  As a result, many new candidates have less voter interaction because they spend more time raising money to run a competitive campaign and may not be able to raise enough to truly be competitive with other candidates who have access to wealthier donors.

Bryan Sutton: Cambridge City Council campaigns are financed the same way campaigns on all levels in our country are financed. There is also widespread support for reform and agreement the current system is causing very important democracy problems. Cambridge should be a leader in the reform we want to see.

Gwen Volmar: I have serious concerns about the influence of lobbying/special interests on political campaigns in Cambridge, along with any conflict of interest, financial or otherwise. I am also concerned, however, that hastily-planned limitations on the kind of fundraising that can be done may disproportionately affect newcomers who wish to challenge a well-moneyed establishment. Any new policies enacted in the interest of preventing bias in campaigns must also work to level the playing field for all candidates. A publicly-financed campaign model must be robust enough that a competitive campaign could be run on those funds alone, instead of just bloating an already imbalanced slate.

Quinton Zondervan: I am proud to say that out of all 26 candidates, I have received the second most number of individual contributions from Cambridge residents. Jan Devereux is the only one who has received more contributions from within the city. But the larger point is that I shouldn’t have to spend hours each day fundraising my campaign. If I didn’t have to do that, I could spend more time talking to voters about issues that matter, and making progress towards making our city a better place. Instead, a councillor must raise $50,000 every two years to keep their seat. It’s a ridiculous amount of time and energy wasted on something that should be taken care of through public financing. I also think that historically councillors have taken too much money from individuals with business before the council. It’s not that I think they are corrupt, but rather that taking those contributions creates the potential for abuse and at the very least the perception of something wrong. Candidates should all pledge to reject these contributions, in the name of transparency and accountability to the people.