American cities are the incubator for political change

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We know our political system is corrupt. We know that big money rules the day. The rich and powerful have carved a sweet deal for themselves, and our Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, have been willing participants … with a lot of help from the Supreme Court of course.

But it feels a bit different these days. More and more politicians are speaking out. Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been one of the most vocal of late, as has Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. In fact, Ms. Cortez’ five-minute questioning in a recent hearing being by the Government Oversight Committee has gone viral. That’s all the length of time it took her to spell out how corrupt and ridiculous our system is. A constant target of the political right, the Congresswoman gave quite a performance in her take-down of the Washington elites. She’s young, full of energy, and ready to fight the special interests. Politicians on both sides are feeling a little heat.

It’s about time.

But it’s not just the national politicians who are trying to affect change. There are ideas out there that aim to level the playing field in our democracy. Concrete steps are being taken, and experiments are happening as we speak.


In 2015, Seattle voters passed a citizen-led initiative known as “Honest Elections Seattle” (I-122). The initiative enacted several campaign finance reforms that changed the way campaigns are typically financed. According to the website, one of the reforms allows the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission (SEEC) to distribute “Democracy Vouchers” to eligible Seattle residents. For instance, on February 12, all registered voters and eligible residents who applied received $25 Democracy Vouchers by mail. That money can be used to support the candidates of their choice in the upcoming city council elections.

In 2019, the SEEC has budgeted $4.2 million in funding for the program. Primary candidates have a maximum spending limit of $75,000. Those who progress to the General Election have a cumulative spending limit of $150,000. For a candidate to qualify for the vouchers, they must collect at least 150 qualifying contributions and signatures from Seattle residents. Seventy-five donations and signatures must come from within the candidate’s district.


In the 2018 November election, Portland voters passed a campaign finance measure that limits large contributions in political campaigns and requires candidates in city elections to disclose their funders in advertisements. Ironically, Oregon is one of only five states with no limits at all on political contributions, despite decades of effort by campaign finance activists, which would appear to put Portland at odds with the state law.

The measure also bars political contributions from corporations and limits the amount a candidate can receive from an individual donor to $500. Also, individuals can give no more than $5,000 total to city candidates and initiatives per election, while political committees can make aggregate contributions of no more than $10,000 per election.

And Portland is also set to implement a system similar to Seattle. A public finance system for campaigns is set to begin in 2020. This system was put in place by the Portland City Council rather than voters and will provide matching funds to eligible candidates for mayor, city commissioner and auditor.


Denver voters passed Measure 2E in November, which frees up public funding for candidates who agree to forgo money from political action committees and demonstrate a base of support. Also, the measure bans corporations, businesses, and labor unions from donating directly to political campaigns for city offices, and lowers the cap on donations for mayor, city council and other government posts.

According to one of the co-sponsors of the bill, Tony Pigford, who is a candidate for Denver City Council in 2019, it’s clear what the eventual objective of this bill is, “We’ve got to eventually overturn Citizens United, and this is a step in the right direction. Is it as far as we need to go with nationally? No.”

Thus, clearly, there’s a movement going on. Cities around the country are at least trying to level the playing field. It’s not going to be easy nationally. The special interests will fight these types of reforms with vigor. In fact, even in these cities, you can guarantee there will be court challenges. And it will be the same argument that the Supreme Court has made for many years now—that money is speech and corporations are people.

It just may be that the constitutional amendment process may be the only way that we will eventually get the change we seek. It’s a long shot, but the momentum seems to be heading in the right direction. In the meantime, at least the cities of America appear to be a willing incubator for these reforms.

By seeing what works … and what doesn’t … Congress will have a framework to plow forward on reforms in the future. It would be nice if it could happen on a bi-partisan basis. Unfortunately, thus far the political right doesn’t have the appetite.

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