One of my favorite units to teach at Santa Clara High School is Elections and Campaigns. I start the lesson by showing the students the famous quote “Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” by former California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh. I ask my students if they agree. Overwhelmingly, the students said yes. “Matthew” looked at the past presidential election: a job that pays $400,000 a year, Trump and Clinton spent $6.8 billion to win. Of course, money matters, Matthew cried out. “Maggie” said this is wrong, what can we do about it she pleaded? Why can’t we publicly finance campaigns like those in other democratic countries? I transitioned from Maggie’s keen observation into the lesson.
1) 15 states in America have some form of public financing for their elections including the gold standard: the state of Arizona
2) San Francisco and Los Angeles have forms of public financing
3) The Supreme Court, in the landmark case Randall v. Sorrell in 2006, struck down Vermont’s public financing system as a violation of speech found in the 1st Amendment.
4) Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010 created a floodgate of unregulated money into our political system.
Matthew asked “can’t we bypass the Supreme Court’s decisions on 2006 and 2010?” Maggie said, “No, we have a thing called the Constitution,” but Matthew replied and said “aren’t states the laboratories of democracy under our federal system?” I was smiling ear to ear! I said yes, state and local governments could lead on public financing as in Arizona!
Next, we created a public financing system that could be implemented in the City of Santa Clara. After all Santa Clara has been a leader on ethics when it comes to municipal elections and a leader on voluntary expenditure limits. To qualify for public financing a candidate for local government must: secure 100 $5 donations from registered voters living in the Mission City. Once this grassroots threshold is met, the candidate will receive $39,500 of public funds. If a candidate does not meet the threshold or opts out, they will not receive the public financing.
My students overwhelming supported this idea—28-3 was the vote in the class. Maggie said “this will make candidates less dependent on special interests.” Other students also believed that this system will have candidates campaigning at the grassroots level, and there would be an increase of candidates running for office in Santa Clara. Public financing will level the playing field and depress the incumbency advantage, and restore our Framers’ vision of a turbulent, citizen-elective government.
The class was excited, and as I’m a member of the City’s Ethics committee, they lobbied me to introduce their idea, I was all in! As Maggie and Matthew both agreed, this public financing model will be a Herculean step in resorting trust in our politicians. I look forward to heeding their advice.
Wouldn’t that be nice if only the Supreme Court agreed?
Dominic Caserta, a teacher at Santa Clara High School and the city’s Councilmember, seat #5, is a candidate for the Board of Supervisors that includes Santa Clara, wrote this article for the Santa Clara Weekly.