Campaign Reform Looms At Capitol
Prospect has some lawmakers on edge
The proposal to publicly finance campaigns is filling the
state Capitol with exhilaration and dread.
Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic lawmakers are
daring each other to adopt the concept; if they come to
terms, Connecticut will see radical change in how it elects
its governor and legislature.
The true believers are ready to celebrate. Doubters fret
they are about to ruin a good thing, a machine that returns
incumbents to power with reliability and efficiency.
In the past two decades, the Democratic majorities in the
House and Senate have perfected self-sustaining, permanent
campaigns at the state Capitol, largely fueled by lobbyists
and their clients.
The permanent campaigns recruit candidates and help with
polling, direct mail and, of course, raising money, such as
the $50,000 directed last year to one candidate competing
for an open Senate seat.
Jonathan Pelto, a former lawmaker and state political
director of the state Democratic Party, said the
willingness of lawmakers to overhaul the system with public
financing would be extraordinary.
"There are multiple generations of candidates who have
found success in a system they are now being asked to
destroy," Pelto said. "It would be the single most
significant change in the way campaigns are run in more
than 20 years."
If the legislature's incumbents voluntarily blow up their
campaign money machine, it would be an act without
Only Arizona and Maine have extensive systems of public
financing, but those systems are the product of referendums
forced by citizen petitions, not legislation adopted by
The starkest example of legislative resistance to public
financing can be found in Massachusetts: When Bay State
voters passed a public financing initiative, the
legislature simply refused to fund the system adopted by
Sen. Donald J. DeFronzo, D-New Britain, one of the
proponents of reform, said anxiety is high as legislators
realize they may be asked in the next three days to
re-invent campaigns with legislation still being negotiated
"When you propose a total, cold-turkey shift of the
campaign financing system, it sends shivers up the spines
of all the incumbents and other participants," DeFronzo
said. "Nobody knows where it's all going to go."
Will safe incumbents suddenly have strong challenges?
Will the reform revive the Republican Party, or simply make
it easier for Democrats to be re-elected without
One thing is clear: Change will require the leaders of the
Democratic and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate
to cede to their candidates the vast power that comes with
controlling the flow of centrally raised funds.
"This will be a very radical change," said House Minority
Leader Robert M. Ward, R-North Branford. "The role of the
parties and caucuses will be different."
In Arizona, according to Andy Sauer of Common Cause, the
change helped bring a new crop of independent legislators
who increased education funding in defiance of legislative
The legislation under consideration in Connecticut would
establish public financing for all state offices: the
legislature, the governor and the other statewide
Candidates would qualify for public financing by raising
seed money in small donations and pledging to abide by
A candidate for governor would have to raise $250,000 to
qualify for $3 million in public funds. Limits for House
and Senate candidates are under negotiation. An early
Senate version set limits of $30,000 and $150,000 for the
House and Senate.
No funding mechanism has been publicly identified for the
annual estimated cost of $10 million.
The governor, who made ethics and campaign reforms a
priority after a corruption scandal forced her predecessor,
John G. Rowland, from office, had been seeking a ban on
contributions from lobbyists, state contractors and other
Rell revived and redefined the campaign reform issue last
week after House Democrats announced the reform effort was
dead without her leadership.
If Democrats agreed to her restrictions, she would drop her
long opposition to public financing, a reform ostensibly
favored by a majority of Democrats.
Senate Republicans quickly promised to drop their
objections to public financing, under certain
House Democrats pronounced themselves open to the change
Thursday. Senate Democrats, who still wondered if Rell was
engaging in gamesmanship, agreed to work on the plan
Publicly, everyone was open to change. Privately, some
legislators in both parties wondered if everyone knew what
they were doing.
One Democratic lawmaker said, "I feel like we're speeding
down hill - straight at a brick wall."
On Saturday, Rell's staff and legislators continued work on
crafting an acceptable public financing bill before the
session ends Wednesday.
"I really think they are very close," said Tom Swan, the
executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action
Sen. Mary Ann Handley, D-Manchester, said she believes the
momentum is too strong to stop.
"What a revolution it will make in this place," Handley
said. "I'm thinking of the insider power plays that go on
Handley said she referred to a Senate leadership fight in
2002. Senators who sided with a challenger found themselves
cut off from caucus funds.
Others cautioned against overstating the independence of
leadership that public financing might foster. Leaders
still have the power to make committee assignments, include
goodies in the state bonding package or schedule a vote for
"We're sitting here on a Saturday. Maybe 40 bills will be
voted on before the session ends Wednesday," said Richard
Foley, a lobbyist and former lawmaker and GOP state
chairman. "How do you make sure your bill is one of the 40?
Either you have strong personal skills - or you make sure
you are part of the team."
Others said the importance of public financing is the
independence it will foster from lobbyists.
"Right now, most incumbents raise lots of money, I'd say 25
to 70 percent, from Capitol insiders: lobbyists, the
businesses those lobbyists represent and the heads of those
companies," Ward said. "That will change."
In some years, caucus staff have invited lobbyists to
meetings and assigned them fund-raising goals, legislators
and others said. Individual legislators also rely on
lobbyists and their clients.
"Right now, a candidate calls a lobbyist and says, `Hey, I
need money for my campaign.' And the lobbyist says, `OK,'
and the next day shows with five or six checks," said Rep.
Christopher L. Caruso, D-Bridgeport, one of the reform
"Through the use of public money, citizens will regain
their legislators. Simple as that. There won't be any
influence of lobbyist money, contractor money, political
action committees," Caruso said. "The influence that is
wielded through those relationships is tremendous."
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