State must reform political financing

March 12, 2001|By G.I. Johnson and Stephanie Wilson

OUR SYSTEM of privately financed politics has a discriminatory impact on African-Americans.

For that reason, black voices must be heard in the debate about how the system should be reformed, including the current debate in the Maryland General Assembly. Full public financing of political campaigns would improve the quality of democracy, government and life for blacks.

The most effective method of eliminating the inequalities of the current system is to provide ample public funding to legitimate candidates who agree to limit their campaign spending and refrain from raising money from private sources. This system is in effect, with impressive results, in Maine and Arizona.

House Majority Leader John A. Hurson of Montgomery County and Sen. Paul Pinsky of Prince George's County have sponsored legislation modeled on the Maine and Arizona systems. A coalition that includes Progressive Maryland, the NAACP, Common Cause and the AFL-CIO has come together as the "Maryland Network for Clean Campaigns" to lobby for the bill.

In a privately funded political system, those who contribute money have special access to politicians and the leadership of political parties and determine which candidates can run credible campaigns. Voting often consists of choosing between candidates selected by contributors. Not all Americans enjoy the promise of political equality because a wealthy contributor has significantly more power than most voters. Wealthy contributors are disproportionately white.

A 1998 study of federal elections, "The Color of Money," by Public Campaign, a Washington-based a non-partisan reform group, documents this.

Using this study, contrast two Maryland ZIP codes of roughly the same population. ZIP code 21216, in inner-city Baltimore, which (as of 1996) was 98 percent black with a per capita income of $9,900, contributed $20,666 to federal candidates, political action committees and political parties during the 1995-1996 election period.

ZIP code 20854, in suburban Potomac in Montgomery County, which was 80 percent white with a per capita income of $44,500, contributed 90 times as much -- $1,860,382.

Given these disparities, we should not be shocked that legislation fails communities of color in key policy areas.

Government-enforced racial policies such as slavery, segregation and "whites-only" immigration laws have resulted in generations of black political and economic disadvantage. In the words of TransAfrica founder Randall Robinson, "[W]ithout fundamental campaign finance reform, almost no social restructuring is possible in our country on virtually any issue of consequence, from gun control to health care."

While whites may not have designed the campaign finance system to intentionally exclude non-whites, the current system contributes to the continued subordination of blacks. Blacks are less able to help their candidates campaign and get elected and incumbents generally give less attention to blacks because they have little money to contribute.

If public funding were available, black candidates would have enough money to run competitive races without relying on money from wealthy interests.

And "mainstream" politicians and political parties would spend less time focused on wealthy interests and would be less likely to take the African-American vote for granted.

G.I. Johnson is president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP. Stephanie Wilson is director of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, which connects the history of voting and civil rights struggles to campaign finance reform.

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