The Race Against the Clock for Public Financing


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By Sterling Fluharty

— As Albuquerque mayoral candidate Pete Dinelli left the City Clerk’s Office on Thursday afternoon, he still needed at least 700 more $5 contributions to qualify for public financing of his campaign. Assuming he works 12 hours a day, including over this Easter weekend, he will have to collect a contribution every three minutes to reach his goal.

The City Charter and rules of the city clerk say mayoral candidates, in six weeks, must collect an address, a signature, and a $5 contribution from one of every hundred voters who live within the city. If Dinelli accumulates 3,621 qualifying contributions, before Monday, the city will give him about $362,000 to pay for his campaign.

Several people have tried to obtain Albuquerque’s public financing for mayoral campaigns, but few have actually received it. City Councilors Debbie O’Malley and Michael Cadigan launched mayoral campaigns for the 2009 election, but they dropped out of the race by March. These two realized they could not collect enough contributions within the time allowed to tap into public financing.

In his first five weeks, Dinelli, a former city councilor, dropped off a total of 1,900 contributions. On Thursday he submitted almost 1,300 more, which his team rushed to collect in six days as they expanded their operations.

“I’m really excited about the extent of support we’ve discovered,” Dinelli says. “This is a massive undertaking. I’ve discovered I have strong support from Democrats and Republicans, as well as Independents. This reflects a strong grassroots movement.”

The Rejection Rate

City Clerk Amy Bailey and her staff have verified all but 7 percent of the contributions Dinelli submitted before this week. But with the batch he brought in Thursday, the latest figures, provided to New Mexico Compass by Bailey’s office, indicate the rejection rate for Dinelli’s most recent contributions has more than doubled.

Bailey and her assistant plan to double-check some of Dinelli’s rejected contributions, in case they can find a match on the voter rolls that somehow eluded the rest of her staff. Sometimes they notice a voter has put down a nickname instead of their legal name, or forgot to update their maiden name on their voter registration after they married.

If a contributor lives outside the city, does not appear on the voter rolls, or fails to provide an address, date or signature, Bailey has no choice but to reject the contribution.

Idalia Lechuga-Tena, Dinelli’s campaign manager, says the campaign team looks up voters on lists of contributors from previous municipal races, calls these individuals with a “targeted ask,” and then dispatches runners to obtain the $5. They have also had success with house parties, she adds.

Why Public Financing?

“The first step towards restoring trust in City Hall is to ensure that our mayor is responsible only to the people of Albuquerque,” Dinelli says on his campaign website. “I firmly believe that there is no place in City Hall for the special interests.”

All of Dinelli’s opponents, including Mayor Richard Berry, have decided to raise their campaign funds privately. Last time around, Berry won his race after earning and spending $328,000 in public financing.

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Dinelli has to submit a seed money report to Bailey on Monday. The city will deduct any seed money Dinelli raised and spent on his contribution-gathering operation from the amount of public financing he hopes to receive for his campaign.

Bailey’s employees expect to certify all contributions on Monday. Dinelli should find out by the end of that day whether he willl receive public financing. His opponents―and perhaps unannounced candidates―will watch closely to see whether he receives all of his campaign funds up front.

If Dinelli’s campaign gets a public financing disbursement in early April, his opponents may have to spend months making phone calls and attending fundraisers to catch up using private donations. Otherwise, Dinelli keeps none of the money he raised in the last six weeks and starts his fundraising from scratch.

The Private Route

Mayor Berry has already started fundraising. His campaign will host a luncheon on Monday, April 8, at Emcore in Albuquerque, where each plate will cost either $500 or $1,000. The flier for this event notes “Individuals may contribute a maximum of $5,192 in personal funds to Berry for Mayor.”

The same flier also says “Corporate, PAC and LCC contributions are not allowed.” Any organization wanting to spend money in Albuquerque’s elections, either for or against candidates or ballot/bond questions, has to set up a Measure Finance Committee and submit regular reports to the city clerk.

The mayor and city councilors report any campaign fundraising and expenditures in quarterly and campaign disclosure reports. Forty-five days after their last municipal election, incumbents had to zero out their account and turn over remaining money to the city or a charity―or else refund their donors. They will file their next reports with Bailey on Monday, April 15, after which she will post them online.

City Council candidates in Albuquerque may also seek public financing. They start by formally submitting a statement of their intent and receiving training on the campaign reporting website. Their window for seed money started on March 15. Council candidates gather $5 contributions between May 1 and 31.

Non-incumbent candidates, for either mayor or City Council, who raise funds privately, will file their first major campaign finance report with Bailey on Friday, July 19. These reports will likewise appear on the city clerk’s website.

Retired Albuquerque police Sgt. Paul Heh, who joined the mayoral race in February, decided last month to pursue private donations. The City Clerk’s Office says Heh has not yet filled out the paperwork to officially withdraw from public financing.

Another mayoral candidate, Margaret Aragon de Chavez (once a first lady of Albuquerque) says with Easter approaching, her team will “shut down our seeking of public financing” and instead “seek private financing.” She explains her full-time job responsibilities―and the fact that she hasn’t been in the race as long as Dinelli―were factors in the decision.

Aragon de Chavez has submitted fewer than 400 contributions to the city clerk. Her unpaid team spent many evenings and weekends standing outside of Popejoy Hall at the University of New Mexico and across Central Avenue at Frontier Restaurant gathering them.

Heh and Aragon de Chavez, according to the Bailey’s office, will have to report and return their seed money by noon on Monday, when they formally withdraw from public financing.

Options and Alternatives

A few other races around the state also make public financing available. Appellate judge and Public Regulation Commission candidates can spend up to six months collecting $5 contributions. Mayoral and council candidates in Santa Fe have two and a half months to collect them.

The state, Albuquerque and Santa Fe used to provide matching funds to publicly funded candidates when their opponents outraised them. But the federal courts in New Mexico have ruled at least twice against this provision, following a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled matching funds were unconstitutional.

SB 16 proposes a new method of matching funds for publicly funded state-level races. It would allow a candidate, once outraised, to collect as much as $100 per voter and receive up to four times the amount of these contributions as matching funds. This bill passed 33-7 in the Senate and 68-0 in the House and awaits Gov. Susana Martinez’ signature.

Advocates for public financing argue it keeps big money out of politics and reduces corruption in government. Opponents have largely persuaded the courts that traditional methods of matching funds―in which matching funds cancel out, dollar for dollar, donations from independent groups and private citizens―infringe upon constitutionally protected free speech rights.

If the governor signs SB 16 into law, Bailey says the Albuquerque City Council could present to voters a charter amendment adopting a similar matching funds fix. But Bailey adds that she has not heard any discussion about partially restoring Albuquerque’s matching funds in this way.

Dinelli is a Democrat, Berry is a Republican, and two-thirds of Albuquerque’s city councilors are Republicans, so the city may not adopt a legal form of matching funds for this year’s election. But three of the city councilors eligible to run again this year are Republicans who received public financing in 2009. Labor unions and certain nonprofits successfully spearheaded two progressive voter initiatives in recent months (a minimum wage hike and runoff elections if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote). These groups could spend money to restore a Democratic majority on the City Council. Then perhaps Republicans on the Council will wish matching funds were still available.