Strengthen the Citizens Election Program; don’t weaken it

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In 2005, the people of Connecticut – exhausted and disgusted by years of public corruption – attempted to take back their electoral process from a political culture of insiders and moneyed interests.  Through the Citizens Election Program, we express our commitment to clean elections by putting our money where our mouth is.

We do that by pooling our collective resources not in support of any one candidate or party, but in support of the idea that we can own our democratic process and raise the voices of average citizens above the din of special interest money.  Although we still have a long way to go, the Citizens Election Program has been an invaluable reform.

Despite the success and popularity of the program – which is rightly touted as a model for national clean elections efforts – the Citizens Election Program has routinely been under attack.  The agency that enforces it has been targeted.  Members of both parties have undermined the spirit of the law by funneling outside money into the system and even defrauding the system itself.  The mayor of Bridgeport’s effort to change the law so that individuals who have been convicted of public corruption can fund future campaigns with taxpayer money would, if successful, undermine public confidence in the system.

In just the latest round, Republicans in the legislature are advocating to end the program for budgetary reasons.  This argument is disingenuous.  On average, the total cost of the Citizens Election Program amounts to less than 0.2 percent of our annual budget.  Is our state democracy of such little value that we are willing to sell it at a discount back to the special interests?  More to the point, our budget woes would only worsen if we put special interests in the driver’s seat to make the tough budget decisions that affect us all.

I oppose any effort to disband the Citizens Election Program.  I oppose it for the same reason I have rejected lobbyist contributions to my gubernatorial exploratory committee: lobbyist and special interest spending rigs policy making in their favor and drowns out the voices of average citizens.  I fought this as an anti-corruption prosecutor, and I fight it now.  I remain hopeful that other Democrats will join me in rejecting these contributions.

At a time when so many Americans disdain insider politics and its failures, we should be strengthening campaign finance and ethics laws, not weakening them.  These laws are designed to hold politicians and public institutions accountable, which is precisely what average citizens deserve.

People across our state and country are awakening to the obligations of citizenship.

But, this new democratic vitality demands that we change the way we campaign.  We should focus on low dollar donors who represent our broadly shared aspirations.  And, we should be cultivating grassroots organizations that reinvigorate our politics and serve as a counterweight to a well-funded and organized corporate agenda.  This isn’t just the way to win; it’s the right way to do politics.

Public financing was intended to stem the tide of corruption in Connecticut.  We cannot turn back the clock now.  If we want to have a stronger Connecticut that works for every person, we must put an end to the old way of doing business once and for all.

Christopher Mattei is former Chief of the Financial Fraud and Public Corruption unit for the United States Attorney’s Office.

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