City Council is expecting to hold a hearing this month on a bill that calls for taxpayer funding of political campaigns for city offices. This bill comes when the amount of money spent on campaigns nationwide has reached all-time highs.
The bill, which calls for the city to match qualifying contributions of $150 or less at a rate of 5-1, is a response to concerns that the Democratic City Committee is losing control of primary elections, as demonstrated in the most recent primary.
Aside from the fact that Philadelphia does not adequately fund the most basic services and therefore should not fund elections, this legislation has many problems.
The bill’s sponsors claim it would help political outsiders. This is a lie. This bill is designed to keep establishment Democrats in office, while keeping out Republicans, non-establishment Democrats, and independent candidates.
Under the bill, to qualify for public campaign funds, a mayoral candidate would have to raise $50,000, and candidates for other city offices $15,000, from city residents who contribute $150 or less. At the very least, a mayoral candidate must obtain 334 such contributions, and all other offices must receive 100.
These figures might seem achievable, even for outsiders, but anyone who has raised money for a campaign knows that this is not easily accomplished. Republicans, non-establishment Democrats, and independents lack the political infrastructure to ensure these benchmarks would be reached. I’ve seen this while working on Republican campaigns in the city.
It’s a different story for Democratic insiders. For example, if you’re Mayor Kenney or Councilman Bobby Henon, it is easy for a local union leader to arrange for hundreds of members to contribute $150 to a campaign. With just one event, members of the Democratic establishment could qualify to receive public campaign funds. And under the bill, each $150 contribution would become $900 courtesy of the taxpayers.
Here’s Lie No. 2: that this bill will lessen the impact of independent PACs, such as the ones that largely financed Kenney’s mayoral run. Though this bill only provides a candidate with public funds if the contributor donates $150 or less throughout the entire campaign cycle to the candidate’s personal PAC, there is nothing to prevent someone from donating $150 to a candidate’s PAC (triggering the $750 in taxpayer matching funds), and then making all future contributions to the candidate’s “independent” PAC. Sounds like an easily exploitable loophole for insiders who know how to game the system.
The most offensive part of the bill is the fraud provision, which provides in part that the “provision of false, misleading or fraudulent documentation or information in connection with application for public funds under this chapter shall subject the violator to a penalty of up to $2,000.”
In almost every other instance, it is a criminal offense to fraudulently obtain funds from the government. For example, it is a crime for someone to provide false or misleading information to the government to collect welfare benefits or evade taxes. Indeed, the terms false and misleading appear in almost every fraud statute. But Council has specifically left out of the bill any criminal penalties for city campaign funds obtained through fraud. In fact, the bill removes penalties for what is clearly criminal conduct, and instead imposes an ethics-violation fine.
Given that Philadelphia’s elected officials are indicted or convicted — often for mishandling campaign funds — at an alarming rate, why would we exempt them from criminal punishment for fraud? Elected officials should be held to the same standard as ordinary citizens: If you obtain city funds by way of fraud, you go to jail. Seems simple, right?
Don’t be fooled. This bill is simply a City Hall power grab disguised as a way to help “newcomers” and “outsiders.” Instead of using tax dollars for schools, police, and infrastructure, the money would go toward further entrenching the city’s Democratic establishment.
Ross Wolfe is a lawyer and chairman of the Philadelphia Young Republicans. Rosswolfe@comcast.net