Testimony of Adam Parsons, YWC Steering Committee member and resident of Vassor Village

Dec. 4, 2018

Before start, I’d like to thank council president Hardin and the other member present President Pro Tem Stinziano, for convening this meeting on the vital topic of municipal campaign finance reform. I’m disappointed that the rest of council couldn’t be here. Thank you for taking action to create more transparency around independent expenditures – an issue I think everyone in this room is on the same side of.

As I’m sure we’re all aware, the United States consistently ranks near the bottom of developed countries in voter registration and voter turnout for federal elections, and municipal elections in Columbus are much worse. This isn’t surprising: when polled, nonvoters often report that they stay home because “their votes don’t have an impact” and “politicians are corrupt.”

They’re not wrong to think that! While it’s a (thankfully) rare thing for a political figure to directly take a bribe or offer quid pro quo, studies have repeatedly shown that our leaders reflect the policy preferences of their donors far more closely than the policy preferences of their voters. This, too, is unsurprising: as basically every wisdom tradition reminds us, we tend to reflect the beliefs and behaviors of the people with whom we surround ourselves. (This is one reason why “contestedness” as a sole measure is inadequate).*

That’s been clear at the state level recently: the lame-duck session has been full of attempts to pass legislation that the majority of
Ohioans oppose but that significant donor groups support – for example, pending legislation which would make it quicker and easier for landlords to evict people from their homes during the holidays.

I’m not here to complain about the statehouse, though. (It would be a miracle to fit that into three minutes!) I’m here to talk about campaign contribution limits. Contribution limits aren’t about purity or idealism. We all know that in our post-Citizens-United environment we stand little immediate chance of limiting the total amount of money in politics. But we can take concrete steps to create more social distance between our leaders and the donor class. By forcing candidates to raise money in smaller amounts from more people, contribution limits push them to engage with – and financially rely on – a broader cross-section of our society.

We’ve been told that the proposed contribution limit – $12,707.79, nearly two and a half times the savings of the median American household – was set to align our rules with the State of Ohio’s. I’m flabbergasted that we’d seek to replicate our state system – a system which has given us an extraordinarily unrepresentative government – at the local level. It’s obvious that Ohio’s limit isn’t low enough; in fact, it’s one of the highest limits in the country.

Besides, much of the proposed legislation isn’t aligned with the state: from minor issues like a shorter time period for returning illegal donations, to the proposed major reforms around dark money, the City is stepping out ahead of the state in what I think are productive ways. We should do the same thing with contribution limits – it would be a concrete step toward a city that works for the many, not the few.

Clark mentioned that there is support for a democracy credit – where does that info come from?

How many donors have donated amounts to municipal candidates that exceed the proposed limits?

Is there a limit on party contributions? Doesn’t this create partisan advantage in municipal elections?