CHAPEL HILL — If Chapel Hill's town council passes a public financing ordinance in time for the 2009 election, it would create the first General Assembly-approved municipal public financing program in the state.
Supporters say public financing -- and the campaign spending limits that come with it -- could level the playing field for regular Janes and Joes to compete against wealthier opponents.
"It's a very forward-thinking, progressive idea of government coming out of Chapel Hill," said Adam Sotak, organizing director with the Durham-based Democracy North Carolina. "It's not the answer to all democracy's problems, but it is a great solution and a great way to give people a chance to run for office."
But using public money for political campaigns has its critics.
"I don't see a good reason to spend hard-earned tax dollars on someone's political campaign," said state Sen. Andrew Brock, a Republican representing Davie and Rowan counties. Brock was one of nine senators to vote against the legislation passed last summer that enables Chapel Hill to enact its own public financing ordinance.
Mark Kleinschmidt, a Chapel Hill Town Council member who will serve on the committee to begin drafting the public financing ordinance Tuesday, admits that spending limits may have little effect on the campaigns of well-established incumbents. But without limits, only wealthy or well-connected challengers will have a chance to spread their messages, Kleinschmidt said.
"In today's world, that costs money," he said.
Kleinschmidt pointed to this year's Chapel Hill Town Council race, where two-term incumbent Jim Ward led the field in total votes while spending less than $500.
On the other hand, challenger Matt Czajkowski spent more than any other candidate to edge out incumbent Cam Hill by 60 votes for the fourth and final council seat. Czajkowski had lent his own campaign $6,000 and spent about $4,700, mostly on signs and mailings, as of the latest mandatory campaign finance report Oct. 22.
"I don't think a challenger could have won [against Hill] with a $500 investment," said Kleinschmidt.
Czajkowski opposes spending limits and public financing, especially with a projected town budget deficit of $28 million over the next fours years that he says may require both cutting services and raising taxes.
"In the context of that, how do you think the citizens of Chapel Hill are going to feel about funding campaigns?" Czajkowski said. "I think it's going to get harder and harder to justify financing things that ultimately are not essential."
Czajkowski said he could have raised his campaign money through donations, even though Chapel Hill limits individual campaign contributions to $250. He just would have needed to start fundraising before the campaign began.
"I've got a fair number of friends and acquaintances who could write a $100 or a $200 check," he said. "Easy for me to say, but if you can't raise $3,000, then how credible is your candidacy?"
Brock agreed and said a challenger who struggles to pay for his or her campaign will also struggle with the demands of public office.
"If you're scraping by to run for office," Brock said, "well, once you get in office, you're not making money. ... If there's a will for them to run for office, they'll come up with a way to get some money."
Though the details of Chapel Hill's system haven't been worked out yet, public financing programs typically require candidates to raise some private money before receiving public funds. Public financing for judges and Council of State candidates, for example, requires contributions from 350 and 750 donors, respectively.
Kleinschmidt hopes Chapel Hill's program will have such a requirement but noted that candidates such as Czajkowski will still be able to opt out and spend as much as they'd like.
"I would like to have seen him to have gone out and gotten that money in small pieces from lots of people," said Kleinschmidt, "but at the end of the day, the support that mattered was from the people who voted for him."
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