These are challenging days to be an elected official in North Carolina. The news often seems full of stories of state leaders under the spotlight of ethics and campaign finance violations. Though only a very tiny minority of our elected leaders are under investigation, the negative publicity casts a gloomy light on everyone in our government - and indeed, on government itself.
If American democracy is to succeed and prosper in the 21st century, we need to rise above the constant cycles of investigations, convictions and public penance. We need to provide the vast majority of our elected officials - who are ethical, upstanding and good people - a new pathway to run for and serve in office.
Most of all, we need to completely revise the way that candidates for public office pay for their campaigns.
With the advent of high-dollar races, there has been a drastic shift from clearly unlawful graft and kickbacks to completely legal campaign donations from questionable sources. It's no surprise that nearly every political scandal to hit the Tar Heel State over the last 10 years has involved campaign funds.
Even when campaign financing is raising corruption concerns, the sky-high cost of running for office is such that candidates are forced to spend their days "dialing for dollars" rather than hearing from their prospective constituents. The simple fact is that most North Carolinians think elections are far too dominated by relatively few, very wealthy interests. That belief must be faced and addressed by the state government.
There's a better way, and it's to give candidates an option called voter-owned elections (VOE). In VOE, candidates who opt in must secure their cash in small donations from you, their constituents. Then they get access to a modest but sufficient public grant. Candidates who choose public financing in VOE can accept no large dollar donations, and must work hard, at the grass-roots, to earn your vote. Public financing through voter-owned elections will create an alternative to the big money chase that now dominates state elections.
This summer, the General Assembly has the power to make two critical changes to our campaign finance landscape. First, the legislature can and should lift the ban on cities that want to experiment with voter-owned elections.
Under current law, if a mayor wants to raise unlimited amounts of cash to elect a city council of his or her liking, he or she is free to do so. He or she can even raise countless dollars from the developers that city councils are supposed to regulate. If that same mayor tries to implement VOE to create an alternative to big dollar campaigns and revitalize grass-roots politics, he or she can get nailed with a lawsuit and hauled into court. North Carolinians deserve better.
Second, the General Assembly should also expand the state's highly successful Council of State voter-owned elections program.
In 2008, four of six eligible candidates participated in VOE, including Democrats and Republicans. We trust the members of our elected Council of State to keep us safe from abusive lenders and employers. They are stewards of our seniors' pensions and help bring jobs to our communities. The legislature should not force candidates for such offices to raise their campaign money, which largely comes from the very corporate and individual interests they are supposed to regulate. Again, the people of our state deserve better.
Without these reforms, there is an alternative future for our democracy - and it's not a pretty one. With the U.S. Supreme Court's recent ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, North Carolina faces for the first time a tidal wave of corporate campaign cash. BP and Goldman Sachs now have the right to spend unlimited amounts of money getting their preferred slate of candidates installed in office, from the presidency right down to your local city council.
Needless to say, the BPs and Goldmans of the world might love nothing more than for corporately financed campaigns to dominate our political landscape. But we are betting that the people of North Carolina see things differently. If you agree, then your lawmakers need to hear that message, loud and clear, from you.
Former sate Sen. Wib Gulley, general counsel for Triangle Transit, has also served as mayor of Durham. Former state Sen. Allen Wellons currently practices law in Smithfield. They wrote on behalf of Common Cause N.C.