Cuyahoga County Council missed a chance to curb spending on countywide campaigns

August 29, 2013
Greg Coleridge

The following is a guest column by Greg Coleridge, director of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee who also served on the Cuyahoga County Transition Advisory Committee on Campaign Finance Reform. He writes in favor of amending the Cuyahoga County charter to impose limits on donations to candidates seeking countywide office.

Cuyahoga County Council missed a democratic moment. Their refusal to place on the November ballot a charter amendment authorizing them to establish campaign contribution limits and donor disclosure requirements means they missed the chance to improve the public perception that council is more concerned about citizens than their own political prospects.

The proposed charter amendment called for no specific contribution limits, nor any specific means of improving disclosure requirements. Those decisions would have been left to council. But it would have provided an opportunity to involve citizens in an inclusive process of research, discussion and making recommendations to council -€“ thereby increasing transparency and trust in our county government.

The end results could have been fully searchable, on-line electronic contribution reports for county candidates and reasonable campaign contribution limits. These advances would have, at least, placed speed bumps on the raising and spending of political money.

One councilperson argued that enhanced disclosure requirements with a fully searchable database of campaign contributions would "have a chilling effect on those running for office, especially young people" strains credulity. Really? Most young people are far more tech savvy than their elders; what they often lack is money to run for public office.

Concerns that limiting campaign contributions favors rich self-funded candidates, as several councilpersons stated, don't square with past reality. Ken Lanci, the 2010 self-funded candidate for county executive, lost big. Matt Dolan was not self-funded. Much of his money came from his family. Individual campaign contribution limits would have prevented any massive-sized contributions to his or any campaign.

However, some concerns raised by councilpersons regarding contribution limits have merit. Bizarre U.S. constitutional decisions since the 1800's treating corporations as legal persons and equating money with political speech (the most recent being the 2010 Citizens United decision) have created ways around any law passed at any government level. The desire for full public financing of elections, supported in principle by several councilpersons, can only exist voluntarily because constitutionally "money equals speech."

If money is speech, then those who have the most money have the most speech. That's not democracy, but plutocracy. No wonder citizens feel increasingly disconnected from our representatives.

As one councilperson correctly stated, the ultimate problem/solution of big money in politics is "at a higher level." That doesn't excuse County Council from enacting ordinances establishing appropriate contribution limits and maximum full disclosure of contributions. It does create, however, an opportunity for council to pursue a second track joining 450 communities across the country that have passed resolutions or ballot initiatives for a U.S. Constitutional Amendment declaring that corporate entities (corporations, unions, PACs, SuperPACs, etc.) are not people and money is not speech.

Only human beings, not corporations, possess inalienable constitutional rights, including 1st Amendment free speech rights.

With such a two-track approach, County Council would be doing everything it can under the current constitutional constraints while simultaneously joining the growing national movement to end those constraints. For once, We the People would be the winners.

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