In a move that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago, the DC Council voted unanimously last week to approve public financing for local elections. For a city that has suffered from the perception of pay-to-play politics almost since its inception, this move could cause major changes to how housing development is seen in the District.
The bill, which needs a second council vote and the Mayor’s approval or a council override, would use public funds as a multiplier for small-dollar donations that council and mayoral candidates receive. Any donations candidates receive before they are on the ballot would be matched by a multiple of two. After they’re on the ballot, that increases to a multiple of five. Candidates also receive a lump sum from the city ($160,000 for mayor, $40,000 for council) after they’ve hit a minimum number of small dollar donations.
The program is voluntary, but by agreeing to be a part of it, candidates limit the maximum contribution they can accept. For mayor, that drops from $2,000 to $200 per individual. For a Ward-based councilmember, that drops all the way down to $50.
Despite the bill’s unanimous support from the Council, the Mayor has expressed opposition to public financing for elections. She says that funding (estimated to be around $5 million per year) could be better spent on other projects.
But it could be a small price to pay to remove the longstanding perception that development in DC depends on donations to the right candidates. A 2013 review by WAMU found that from 2003 to 2013, more than a third of the $1.7 billion in District subsidy for development went to the ten developers who donated the most to political campaigns.
That same report found that less than 5 percent of subsidy went to Wards 7 and 8, where investment is most needed. Although that picture has changed with Mayor Bowser’s yearly commitment of $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, which provides funding for affordable housing across the city, disparities remain.
This matches with data from a 2016 report by Demos that shows that while white residents make up less than 40 percent of the District’s population, they represent more than two-thirds of local donors. Similarly, although only one in four District residents earn more than $100,000, those earners make up 60 percent of all campaign contributions.
Public financing and its emphasis on small dollar donations could bring more attention the needs of all District residents in campaigning and crafting policy. Just as importantly, it could also help bring transparency to the city’s development process and remove any lingering doubts about the fairness of how subsidy is awarded.