During a news conference Tuesday afternoon in the State House rotunda, proponents of significantly expanding publicly financed elections in Rhode Island — a concept they call "Fair Elections" — cited a litany of reasons for why it would be good for the Ocean State and its citizens.
Phoebe Neel, a 17-year-old Brown freshman from Providence's South Side, says embracing public elections would send a positive message in a state that has had its problems with corruption. And she says, "It would make a huge difference in terms of who can run for office."
Similarly, Sheila Dormody, the director of Clean Water Action, noting how various industry and interest groups dramatically outspend environmental organizations in campaign donations, says that Fair Elections would create a more level playing field.
Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, who used the state's rather limited system of public financing in his 2006 campaign, was on hand to lend his philosophical support, and a small group of progressive legislators and a throng of Brown students joined John Marion, the executive director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, and Libby Kimzey, a Brown junior active with Rhode Islanders for Fair Elections (fairelectionsri.org), in touting the measure.
Yet the General Assembly, the body that would need to pass Fair Elections, is the one that would be most impacted by it, and it is seen as reluctant to pass the measure. Proponents have recognized this challenge since related legislation was first introduced in 2005 (see "Is Rhode Island ready for Clean Elections?" News, February 25, 2005).
Meanwhile, President Obama, who fueled his extremely successful fundraising effort last year, outflanking John McCain, by opting out of the federal system, offers a prime example of how even a perceived champion of reform couldn't resist embracing the overwhelming power of money in politics.
Marion and Kimzey counter that Obama raised much of his war chest through small donations — the same kind of approach that Fair Elections seeks to institute, first through a qualifying round for candidates for statewide office, and then with a prescribed amount of campaign funding. States that have implemented similar measures include Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut.
And while the estimated $7 million cost might seem a non-starter in the current moment, proponents say the value of enhancing democracy is more than worth it. "For about the cost of a couple of cups of coffee per person each year, we can fundamentally alter the political process," Marion says.
The Fair Elections legislation is thought to still face an uphill battle in the legislature, but members of the an almost 20-member advocacy coalition, encompassing groups from Operation Clean Government to the RI Green Party, say it has attracted 15 cosponsors, including Senate Majority Leader Daniel Connors.
And despite the hurdles, says Marion, "We have to engage the fight — keep pushing. You never know when lightning is going to strike."