Measure X1 introduces possibility for Berkeley public campaign financing

Dani Sundell/Senior Staff

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The upcoming November ballot will feature a measure that would implement a public financing system for Berkeley city elections and could potentially diversify the pool of candidates in future elections.

Measure X1 would allow candidates running for mayor or Berkeley City Council to receive funds from the city equivalent to six times the amount of donations they acquire from Berkeley residents, on the condition that they only accept donations of $50 or fewer and not accept money from special interest political action committees. The matched funds would be capped at $40,000 per council candidate and $120,000 per mayoral candidate, and the measure is estimated to cost approximately $500,000 per year from the city’s General Fund.

Measure X1 was placed on the ballot by City Council, but its main proponents include nonprofits such as MapLight, which researches money’s influence in politics, and the UC Berkeley chapter of Common Cause, which aims to promote open government that serves public interests. According to Councilmember Kriss Worthington, many of the people who testified at City Council meetings in favor of the measure were students.

“(This would) create a fair election system to remove the wealth barrier to office so candidates can just run from small donations from Berkeley,” said Daniel Newman, president and co-founder of MapLight.

The city of Berkeley currently has a $250 donation cap for individuals and political action committees, and candidates are not allowed to accept donations from businesses.

In an analysis of the contributions the current mayor and City Council incumbents received in their last campaigns, Newman said Maplight identified that more than half the total contributions came from less than one percent of Berkeley households and a third of total campaign contributions came from outside Berkeley.

According to Newman, the design of Measure X1 is influenced by existing similar systems in place at about 15 other locations across the country. Newman added that in New York City, where a public finance system is in place for local elections, city candidates are representative of the community as a whole, whereas donations to candidates for the New York State Assembly mostly come from the wealthy areas.

Eduardo Martinez, who is currently the vice mayor of Richmond, said the public campaign finance system in his city “absolutely” helped him run for office.

“Public financing helps level the playing field for first-time candidates,” Martinez said.

Berkeley mayoral candidate and UC Berkeley graduate student Ben Gould said if the public financing option under Measure X1 was available to him, he would have taken it. He called it a “no brainer” decision for anyone who does not expect to raise more than the matching caps set in the measure.

Though there were no ballot arguments filed in opposition, some community members expressed possible concerns that the effects of the measure might not be worth the cost of funding it.

The League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany and Emeryville is neutral on the measure because it believes Berkeley already has certain limits on campaign contributions in place and there are more important issues, such as energy efficiency and public infrastructure, that need the money.

“The downside for X1 would be that it would cost 1 to 2 million dollars per (election) cycle, and we really don’t have that money,” said Diz Swift, vice president and action director of the local league chapter. “We can’t ignore the fact that we really have to be prudent about spending, so we felt that it was not the right thing for Berkeley.”

Although not against the measure, Councilmember Susan Wengraf has also expressed concerns about the cost and said a better way to attract more people to run for office would be to introduce term limits. Furthermore, Wengraf noted that Measure X1 does not address third-party expenditures, which she said is a major factor in campaign corruption.

“This is not a comprehensive fix, it’s a step in the right direction,” said Helen Grieco, a Northern California organizer for California Common Cause, in response to concerns. “You take it a step at a time.”

During this election cycle, Berkeley is the only city in the country to have publicly funded elections on the ballot, although Washington and South Dakota will have measures for citizen-funded elections on their state ballots.

Alex Fang covers city government. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @alexfang_DC.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Measure X1 was made possible by SB 1107. In fact, Berkeley had the option to enact public financing before SB 1107 because it is a charter city and has special local powers.