Evoked from frustration with the current political process, the deKoven House in Northern Middletown held a panel to discuss the influence of special interests and money in political campaigns, as well as the need for campaign finance reform. The panel included members from Common Cause, Connecticut Public Interest Research Group (ConnPIRG), and Middletown State Representative and University alumnus Matt Lesser. All attendees shared a strong sense of frustration and alienation that they believe most Americans hold toward the current political process. Attendees of the event—including multiple councilmen, reporters, and University faculty members—were able to voice their opinions, turning the event into a stimulating conversation about the potential for municipal-level public campaign financing.
Panelists and residents demonstrated strong support for a small donor empowerment system in Middletown, calling on Mayor Daniel Drew and the Common Council to strengthen representative democracy with solutions to help take democracy back in both local and national elections. A small donor empowerment system would incentivize political participation and donations from everyday citizens. One such example is a public matching system, where private donations are matched at a certain ratio from public funds.
Professor of Biology and Neuroscience and Behavior Steven DeVoto, also a Middletown resident, emphasized how important these reforms are.
“Campaign finance reform is just as important in local elections as at the national level,” DeVoto said. “It is also achievable. As a Middletown resident, the best thing Mayor Drew and the Common Council could do for our city is to implement a municipal small donor empowerment program.”
Since 2010, American citizens have called for a constitutional amendment to overturn “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission”, a controversial Supreme Court decision that greatly expands the power of wealthy donors to donate to organizations that support political campaigns. The Government By the People Act, introduced in 2014 with more than 150 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives, would give everyday voters more incentives to involve themselves in the political process by providing the them with a tax credit for donations.
Lesser further acknowledged the beneficial effects of a system like this, noting how people who seek to run for office that do not have big-money support can still run a campaign.
“It gave me the confidence to run a competitive race against someone who had been in office for many years,” Lesser said. “It makes the system more fair, and democracy healthier.”
ConnPIRG Organizer Meghan Hassett stressed that Middletown residents have the opportunity to take democracy back on the local level and simultaneously take a stand against big money influencing politics nationwide. Hassett further noted that small donor empowerment programs are already in place in cities including Los Angeles, New York, and New Haven.
The panel spoke on many issues. However, a sizable portion of the conversation was devoted to the cynicism surrounding the creation of change in Middletown and the United States. Hassett spoke on how, although solutions may be time consuming, everyday voices can be still be heard.
“Getting big money out of politics won’t be solved quickly with one magical fix, but amplifying the voices of regular people with public campaign financing is a concrete solution we can implement immediately to start giving control over our political system back to the people,” Hassett said. “Working on a campaign is so exciting because we don’t need a series of scandals to do this, we can simply amplify what we’re working on, and it can help place Middletown as a leader in a larger movement to get big money out of politics.”
Panelist Karen Hobart-Flynn, a 20-year resident of Middletown and Senior Vice President of Strategy and Programs for Common Cause, talked about the need for further action in the Middletown community.
“Although our landmark statewide Clean Elections program is no longer under attack, we cannot stop there,” Hobart-Flynn said. “Empowering small donors in local elections will help people get into politics who normally wouldn’t be able to. It also would ensure that elected officials are held accountable to the local residents.”
The panel also went on to speak about the value of campaign finance reform. The panel argued that they give candidates and local officials more time to reach out to their constituents and talk to them about substantive issues rather than reaching out to lobbyists and their billionaire friends, with the hopes of courting them to get a donation to their campaign.
Karen Hobart-Flynn elaborated on the effects of campaign finance reform.
“People govern differently and run differently, and people feel like their dollars, five dollars make a difference,” Hobart-Flynn said. “The goal is to make sure that things like this can be done, so that one day, something like this can happen at the federal level.”
Matt Lesser also noted that public officials would have a better chance to form a connection with their constituents, and that the connection between public officials and their constituencies is key to success.
“It prevents people from losing touch with their districts,” said Lesser. “Nothing keeps you in touch [more] than having to go out and talk to citizens.”