The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a campaign finance reform bill that still faces opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Under the Fair Elections Act of 2017, beginning with the 2020 election season, participating candidates for city offices would be required to take a much lower maximum donation and accept no donations from businesses or corporations.
In exchange, the city would match donations from D.C. residents on a 5-to-1 basis to candidates for mayor, attorney general, the council and school board.
That would allow candidates to rely on small-dollar donations from voters instead of large contributions from special interest groups, noted council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.
“This system will help give more power to D.C. residents,” Mr. Allen said Tuesday on the dais.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has opposed the legislation as a waste of taxpayer money.
Bowser spokewoman LaToya Foster told The Washington Times on Tuesday that “with so many pressing needs for residents, it is not prudent to divert tax dollars from hiring more police, investing in housing or fixing our roads to paying for candidate robocalls, pole signs or donor receptions.”
Miss Bowser on Friday said she would not fund the campaign financing program if the council approved the legislation.
By some estimates, the District’s campaign financing program could cost as much as $18 million in 2022, when many elections for citywide offices will be on the ballot.
Council member Robert White appeared to respond to the mayor’s criticisms during the discussion before Tuesday’s vote.
“I know that some have argued that the District should not be spending public dollars on campaigns,” the at-large Democrat said. “But I see this bill as a critical investment in our democracy.”
“I look out at the crowd of supporters who have come here today for this bill,” said council member Vincent Gray, Ward 7 Democrat and a former mayor, “and I see that we finally have the energy and the momentum to pass sweeping, comprehensive and progressive campaign finance reform in this city.”
When the legislation was introduced last year, it drew criticism from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The organization said that bill provision that would allow labor unions to contribute to campaigns could undermine individuals’ contributions.
“The council did make some changes to the bill that addressed some of our concerns,” ACLU policy director Nassim Moshiree said Tuesday. “While we might have written it slightly differently to keep with the original intent of the bill to limit small-donor funding of elections to actual individuals, we have always supported this bill and continue to. We’re thrilled the D.C. Council voted for it unanimously.”
The civil rights group was not alone in celebrating the bill’s long-awaited passage.
“We have been supporting Fair Elections since 2013, when it was first introduced by council members [Kenyan] McDuffie and [David] Grosso,” said Keshini Ladduwahetty, chair of D.C. for Democracy, one of 70 local groups that joined the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition to advocate for the bill’s passage.
But council member Mary Cheh warned activists in the council’s chamber before the vote to “not be caught up in some of the romantic rhetoric” and to keep working on larger election reform issues like voter turnout.
“It’s not a panacea,” the Ward 3 Democrat said of the legislation. “We shouldn’t be looking at it as such. But it is a step in expanding our democratic politics.”
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