Penniless politics

Posted: October 10th, 2014 | Featured, News | No Comments

Local org seeks to remove campaign financing from San Diego elections

Chris Pocock

Despite San Diego’s pleasant weather, rich and diverse culture, and beautiful cityscapes, clean politics has never been the city’s strong suit. Corruption and subsequent special elections have been frequent, even expected in recent years, and influence from special interest groups has increasingly pervaded the political climate through massive campaign donations.

It’s this image of our city that Neighborhoods for Clean Elections (NCE) hopes to resolve. The organization, headed by former councilmember John Hartley, aims to remove the influence of high-powered interest groups from the electoral process through a clean elections system.

In a clean elections system, candidates running for local office who pledge not to use their own wealth or donations from businesses, unions and other interest groups would be classified as “clean candidates,” gaining access to an allotment of public funds designated for these electoral bids. Political Action Committees (PACs) would be unaffected by this designation, however, and could run ads regardless of a candidate’s status.

Candidates who choose not to take from these public funds would still be able to use their own wealth and donations from outside sources.

“A clean candidate is one that is not beholden to special interests,” Hartley said. “With Clean Elections, you level the playing field, women and racial minorities have a chance to be elected. You don’t have to be wealthy to run for office. It limits the impact of special interest groups. And for us particularly, it empowers our neighborhoods.”

The Clean Elections Initiative would cost voters an estimated $7 million per year to support, or about $6 per resident in San Diego.

“That figure is sort of a traditional element of Clean Elections, and we’ve found that in our case too,” Hartley said.

Special elections, such as the mayoral election San Diego had in February, may prove difficult given that they exist outside the typical election cycle.

NCE has the support of well-known groups such as Sierra Club San Diego, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters. It’s also received the support of 12 town councils in San Diego, none of which are in the coverage area of Uptown News. Similar clean elections initiatives have been implemented in Maine, Arizona, Connecticut, and cities such as Albuquerque, New Mexico and Portland, Oregon. However, despite its support from

community groups and neighborhood councils, NCE faces an uphill battle.

“Our biggest issue is that people don’t know who we are,” Hartley said. “When I say ‘clean elections’ people say that’s an oxymoron — [the belief is] you can’t have clean elections. Our goal is to educate people on clean elections and that’s what we’re doing.”

Under its original moniker, Alliance for Clean Elections, the organization attempted and failed to put the Clean Elections Initiative on the ballot in 2002 and 2003. Since being revamped as NCE, the coalition is doubling their efforts and moving toward putting the initiative on the ballot in 2016.

NCE, which according to Hartley boasts 400 members and volunteers, has an active presence within the community, holding strategic meetings monthly and running workshops on neighborhood empowerment and local government involvement. Recent speakers have included local attorney Craig Sherman and adjunct professor of political science at Mesa College Mark Linsky.

If implemented in San Diego, Hartley said he would like to see the Clean Elections system spread to other cities in California and perhaps to the state itself, though he is quick to mention that putting the initiative on the ballot within San Diego is a substantial enough endeavor.

“We want to have clean elections for the city of San Diego, and we’ll take a vote of the people,” Hartley said. “It’s going to be tough, but if we can get it on the ballot, it’ll pass. People believe in clean elections.”

—Contact Chris Pocock at


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