San Jose’s Election Code is, like all laws in our democracy, a work in progress. So while the intent of each and every provision may be benevolently intended to lead us toward a more perfect political paradigm, it’s not a stretch to say revisions are in order. With the first campaign finance reports for mayoral and City Council elections due today, it’s appropriate to start by following the money. Regulations governing limits on individual donations and campaign spending are both worthy topics. But there’s enough grist there to write a novel. Instead, I’d prefer to look at a policy that is relatively unique to San Jose: the 180-day fundraising window for council and mayoral candidates.
At first glance, it seems like a sensible policy: Keep incumbent councilmembers focused on their jobs instead of their re-election campaigns, and put all candidates on even footing at the onset of campaign season. But in practice, the results turn out to be quite different. Indeed, the policy has entirely the opposite of its intended effect. Here’s how:
Empowers Candidates of Entitlement
In San Jose, Decembers of odd-numbered years resemble a political High Noon, as candidates jockey to launch their campaigns, host kickoff events, nail down endorsements and raise as many dollars as possible, all while navigating around holiday parties and vacations. Because the first fundraising period ends at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, fundraising totals over this first hectic month can make or break the perceived viability of a campaign before it’s even had a chance to get off the ground. The media plays a substantial role in stoking public perception by using money as the lone narrative in local elections, where issues aren’t as sexy as universal health care and immigration.
This environment tends to empower candidates or incumbents with deep databases of wealthy (or at least well-off) friends and family who they can quickly tap for what one candidate friend calls “love money.” It also benefits candidates who can throw unlimited amounts of money into their own campaigns—which the media rarely takes into account when reporting the fundraising totals. And it certainly provides a boost to those with early support from powerful political action committees, whose members max out to their chosen candidates at $500 a pop.
Deters Grassroots, Community-Driven Candidates
A big December haul for one candidate can easily intimidate those who can’t rely on “love money.” These are the grassroots leaders, with strong pedigrees of community engagement, possessing many strong qualifications but ill-equipped to pick up the phone and bag 100 max-out donations in a few weeks. They need to build their “war chests” from scratch, relying on small donors giving multiple times over many months. San Jose’s fundraising window makes that impossible.
These candidates are often community-driven. Many of them never imagined running for public office. They take the plunge because no one else is stepping up for their neighborhood at City Hall, and they want to make a difference. They often step into the fray only because their neighbors encourage them to run. Unfortunately, while they’re generally the best candidates on paper, they’re too humble to ask for the paper that makes the campaign wheels go ’round. Speaking of humility…
Deters Female Candidates
Dr. Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University and an advisory boardmember of Emerge America, wrote in a study, “Women, even in the highest tiers of professional accomplishment, are substantially less likely than men to demonstrate ambition to seek elective office.” This is not difficult to believe with only one woman currently sitting on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and just two women on the 10-person San Jose City Council—in a region once dubbed the “Feminist Capitol of the World.” And let’s not even talk about Sacramento.
The most qualified women often assume they lack the experience for elected office; and studies have shown that women must be asked, on average, seven times to run. Coupled with the fact that most don’t know how to start campaigning—in part because they lack the strong pipeline that benefits male candidates—female candidates are more likely to face an uphill battle when it comes to fundraising. In a male-dominated political world, they don’t get a lot of help. (I can count the number of female political consultants in San Jose without using a single finger.) And our fundraising timeline doesn’t do them any favors.
Women need to get out of the gates much earlier than men to build credibility for their campaigns—and, in some cases, prove to themselves that they have what it takes to win. By closing their window to a few weeks’ time, we are effectively shutting the council chamber doors on some of the most brilliant, dynamic and respected minds in our community.
Like I said, we can talk campaign fundraising limits until we’re green in the face, but there’s no way to keep money out of our politics entirely. All we can hope to do is keep it transparent, and keep it fair. And that’s precisely why the 180-day fundraising window needs to go.
Peter Allen is an independent political and communications consultant and a proud native of San José. You can follow him on Twitter at @pjallen2.