Give Gonzales His Due on Election Reform
City financing of campaigns has worked elsewhere and could bring welcome change
From an unlikely source comes an excellent proposal for election reform that could open public office to all qualified candidates, not just those who have the time and the connections to raise money.
Public financing of political campaigns would remove the need for candidates to ask special interests for contributions. It also would free them from spending hours on the phone raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in $250 or $500 checks, depending on whether they're running for council or mayor, to comply with city fundraising limits. The time could be better spent meeting voters.
This is the kind of good-government reform San Jose should be leading. That the idea came from Mayor Ron Gonzales was a surprise, although a most-welcome one.
Just two days before making this proposal on Thursday, Gonzales had vigorously opposed reforms to make information about the business of government more accessible to the public. Dismissing pleas made during public testimony, he cast the lone vote against setting up a task force to develop a sunshine law for San Jose -- even though sunshine laws are common in other cities.
Public financing of campaigns is a more revolutionary idea. While cities elsewhere are experimenting with it, San Jose could be the first in California to fully cover the cost of mayoral and council campaigns.
At first glance, taxpayers might be queasy about paying for politicians to run for office. But part of what has made ``politician'' a bad word is the sense that elected officials aren't really looking out for the public interest. If public financing removes that stigma, it could rebuild people's faith in their leaders as well as enable a wider range of civic activists to seek public office.
There are challenges. One is setting a threshold for public financing so that frivolous candidates can't drain the treasury and clog the ballot. Another is counter-balancing independent expenditures on behalf of candidates by special interests as well as expenditures by candidates themselves if they're wealthy enough to pass up public money and finance their own campaigns. Prohibiting such spending would run afoul of constitutional free-speech protections.
But communities in other states are using public financing, so there's experience San Jose can tap into.
Gonzales has proposed that San Jose's elections commission study the issue. The council should applaud and approve his initiative.
The mayor has not been a champion of San Jose's lobbying and ethics reforms over the past few years, and his opposition to a sunshine law followed the same course. This campaign-finance proposal in his final year in office breaks the pattern. He might yet bolster his very mixed legacy with a shot of good-government reform.
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