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Whether Republican or Democrat, incumbent or political newcomer, every candidate who won a position in Albuquerque’s municipal government during the 2021 election cycle had at least one thing in common: all ran for office on the public’s dime.
The city’s public financing system powered Mayor Tim Keller and all five successful City Council candidates to victory this fall, meaning all but one of Albuquerque’s 10 current elected officials – Councilor Trudy Jones, now in the middle of her fourth term – will have used taxpayer money in their most recent races.
But the program that has fueled so many recent election wins also continues to fuel controversy and doubt.
Manuel Gonzales’ fight for public financing proved a central issue during the last mayor’s race, as his campaign argued that the program’s administrator – City Clerk Ethan Watson – played politics with it.
Watson, an appointed clerk whose tenure is tied to Keller’s, had refused to certify Gonzales for more than $600,000 in taxpayer dollars, citing evidence that Gonzales violated rules during the qualifying process. Gonzales’ campaign later acknowledged it had likely submitted forged documents – and the city’s Board of Ethics and Campaign Practices ultimately fined the sheriff twice for infractions – but his team maintained he still garnered enough community support to get the money.
The dispute prompted two months of administrative and court hearings, after which a state judge upheld Watson’s decision. Gonzales ultimately shifted to private campaign donations, though he still has an active lawsuit against Watson.
But while Gonzales’ case thrust the mechanics of the public financing program into the spotlight and sparked some new scrutiny, one advocate argues that it actually “strengthened” the city’s public financing program.
“It showed that those who would pervert it will be held accountable,” said former state legislator Dede Feldman, communications director at Common Cause New Mexico.
Common Cause helped bring Albuquerque’s public financing program to fruition.Others involved at its inception agree that Gonzales’ high-profile case was not a black eye for public financing but say the program needs repairs.
“Absolutely, we need to fix the system,” said former Albuquerque city councilor Eric Griego.
Early backers now sharing concerns
As a councilor in 2005, Griego sponsored legislation to put public financing – via the Open and Ethical Elections Code – on the ballot for city voter approval. It passed with 69% support.
Candidates first had access to public financing in 2007, when four council hopefuls – including eventual winners Debbie O’Malley and Rey Garduño – used it. Another 50 council and mayoral candidates have qualified for and campaigned with taxpayer money since then, according to the city clerk’s files.
“I do think the (program) is working and is a fairly robust program when you compare it to other programs nationally,” said Watson, citing participation levels by candidates and the voters who help them qualify.
But some of the program’s earliest boosters say it is not working as originally envisioned.
Eli Lee, a political consultant who managed the 2005 campaign urging voters to approve public financing, said it has failed to achieve one of its central aims: removing special-interest money from local races. That’s not due to a design flaw, though; Lee and others blame a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions – the 2010 Citizens United decision enabling unlimited corporate and union spending to influence elections and a 2011 ruling that barred Arizona from helping publicly financed political candidates keep pace by providing money to match what private entities had spent in support of their opponents.
An attempt to work around that restriction in Albuquerque – a “Democracy Dollars” program that would have supplemented publicly financed candidates’ initial grant – was rejected by city voters in 2019.
Against that backdrop, political action committees continue playing a major role in Albuquerque elections. The committees, which have no contribution limits, provide independent financial support even for publicly financed candidates who cannot themselves accept large private donations.
For example, a PAC formed to support Keller’s publicly financed reelection bid raised and spent over $313,000. Unions and prominent local businessmen made the largest contributions, according to a Journal review of online campaign finance records.
Real estate and restaurant industry groups, meanwhile, gave heavily to a PAC that spent about $192,000 during the regular election to support certain council candidates, including three – Renee Grout, Dan Lewis and Louie Sanchez – who ran on public financing. Similarly, a different PAC with strong union backing spent over $142,000 during the regular-election cycle to help support publicly financed council candidates, including Lan Sena, and attempt to defeat Grout, Lewis and others.
“Public financing has been a gutted system (since 2011) and does not work as intended,” said Lee, the political consultant who helped pass public financing.
He credited the city of Albuquerque for at least requiring frequent financial disclosures from the PACs, thus allowing the public to better trace the financial support. But he said heavy PAC involvement creates other issues. Their independent status makes it easier to deploy attack ads that do not necessarily taint the candidates they support, Lee said.
“I did not envision that (effect) and I do not think anyone envisioned it,” he said. “We were trying to limit special-interest dollars in elections and public financing has done the opposite.”
Griego said the two Supreme Court decisions have indisputably “changed the game” in campaign financing and that unlimited outside spending is a fact of life. But he contends that the city could improve its public financing system to counteract the third-party financial influence.
“You’re never going to (create) a level playing field, but you can at least make it … so that non-corporate, non-elite-funded candidates have a fighting chance of winning. I think that’s the game,” he said.
He said city voters took a step in that direction already by boosting the public financing grant for qualifying mayoral candidates by 75%. In 2021, that meant mayoral candidates in the program had $661,309 to spend, which he said is enough to run a viable campaign.
In council races, the public financing limits vary by district but are generally in the $40,000 to $50,000 range.
However, Griego and others contend that the allotment to candidates who advance to a runoff election is not enough to be competitive; in fact, all three publicly financed council candidates who proceeded to runoffs in the 2021 cycle abandoned public financing – and the approximately $14,000 campaign grant they would have received – in favor of private contributions. They each went on to raise more than triple that amount in the private sector.
“There’s a lot more work to be done to make it a much more viable and functional system,” Griego said.
Program tweaks likely to continue
Some see other problems too; former city councilor and onetime New Mexico secretary of state Brad Winter ran one of his campaigns on public financing but said he would never use it again if he pursued another office. He said public financing qualifications are complicated, hard to explain to voters and ripe for misconduct. Would-be mayors and councilors must demonstrate sufficient community interest in their campaigns by getting 1% of the voters in their district to contribute $5 to their public financing bid. Campaigns often use paid staff or volunteers to solicit the money. One of Gonzales’ ethics cases involved forged signatures on the $5 receipts.
Winter also voiced concern that empowering an appointed official like the clerk to decide whether to certify a candidate for the money without anyone else’s input makes the system “too political” – or at least opens the process up to such criticism.
“There’s got to be a better way,” Winter said, suggesting the City Council should reevaluate the program and consider relying more on independent accountability officials, like the city’s inspector general or auditor.
Albuquerque has tweaked its program several times since its debut and that is likely to continue.
Watson noted one of the more recent updates helped streamline the $5 contribution collection process. A new-for-2021 website allowed voters to make their $5 contributions electronically, automating some of the needed verification and, Watson said, providing some built-in accountability through the use of credit cards. Overall in 2021, 35.5% of all $5 contributions candidates received came electronically.
Watson said he is not pushing to change the clerk’s role in certifying candidates for public financing. He said programs around the country rely on similar administrators, but said he is considering other adjustments to the city’s program. That may include spot audits of the $5 contributions throughout the qualification process.
He said he also plans to discuss the possibility of raising runoff allocations with the City Council.
While the program has not stopped the flow of special-interest money into city elections, Watson said the city’s election rules do require rigorous financial reporting. The program, he contends, also continues to serve another important purpose: making campaigning possible for more people, including many first-time candidates who may not have access to large political donors.
“It gives people who haven’t run before a chance to gather the number of qualifying contributions, and they can mount a campaign,” Watson said.
While Feldman acknowledged the Supreme Court decisions may have “injured” the program, she said she believes it remains worthwhile.
“I think (Albuquerque) has a decent program that is doing good and should be continued,” she said. “The City Council and others should work on reforming it so that it is even better.”