Guest Opinion | Dr. Denise Robb: Anyone Who Cares About Democracy Should Attend This Meeting – Pasadena Now – Pasadena Now
On Monday October 18, 2021 I attended (virtually) a meeting of the Pasadena City Council. I’m a long-time resident, my son goes to public school here and I’ve been active with the PTA and local government. When I moved here years ago, I was truly shocked to discover that Pasadena city elections had no limitations on campaign contributions. Coming from a progressive-minded city such as Los Angeles where they currently have $800 limits on city races and bans on certain donations from lobbyists and developers, I was heartened to hear that the State of California had imposed $4900 limits on our city. While $4900 seems like quite a lot, it’s certainly better than nothing.
I was invited by a few friends to speak on the issue because I am a professor of political science and the research I conducted at UC Irvine to obtain my Ph.D. involved elections. I have always been a fan of limiting money in politics. I am well-aware of the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, as well as previous decisions proclaiming that money equals free speech and corporations are to be viewed for those purposes as “people.” I am also aware that the Supreme Court will not allow mandatory spending limits, nor can we limit how much money one chooses to spend on one’s own campaign. However, the entire country is subject to those same stipulations and yet Los Angeles caps city council races at $800, Arcadia accepted state limits and South Pasadena capped their limits at $1,000 four years ago. Surely a small city of 140,000 such as Pasadena can live with $4900.
Over 140 people signed letters and/or wrote individual letters in support of the $4900 limits. Twenty-four of us spent over four hours on Zoom waiting and then speaking for 2 minutes each. Every one of the letters and speakers was in favor of limiting money in politics. Even the League of Women Voters and Common Cause – preeminent non-partisan organizations, chimed in on behalf of democracy.
Mayor Gordo insisted over-and-over again that he couldn’t possibly run a worthwhile campaign with such stringent limitations as $4900 (or over $10,000 per couple). Councilmember Williams stated that she was “concerned about changing course mid-stream” and the harm that it might cause current candidates who are already raising money. It appeared that she didn’t realize these limits were already in effect for almost a year. Councilmember Williams asked for clarification from the City Clerk who confirmed that the State of California had already imposed $4900 limits effective January 1, 2021.
The most bizarre fact of the evening was that the only reason this was on the Agenda, was because the Mayor and the City Council wanted to undo the state limits and go back to the past of unlimited contributions. Their main fear being that Independent Expenditures would wipe out their hopes for re-election. However, a quick look at the public portal of donations for candidates in Pasadena shows that $4900 is well above the average individual donation. Independent Expenditures won’t be affected either way so we might as well keep the state limits of $4900.
A number of studies exist on the topic including a study by Stanford University that found, unlike in the general election, early fundraising strongly predicted who would win the primary. Most money is used for advertising which is useful for making voters aware that a candidate exists at all. Also, money helps determine who is even capable of running for office. I ran for city council in Los Angeles in that fateful September 11, 2001 election. I remember quite clearly that the first question newspapers and organizations asked me when I sought their endorsement was: “How much money have you raised?” The same goes for federal elections. In the years from 2000-2016 the candidate who raised the most money had a 90% chance of winning in every instance except one in which there was only an 86% chance.
It’s not even partisan. Republicans and Democrats alike favor limits on money in politics. It’s one of the most popular issues imaginable. A recent Pew study states: “77% of Americans say ‘there should be limits on the amount of money individuals and groups can spend on campaigns.” The optics alone should give the Pasadena City Council and Mayor pause before declaring that they need unlimited funds to run for office in these small districts.
I voted for my own Councilman Andy Wilson because he literally came to my door multiple times in 2017 and when I finally was home, spent over an hour with my family answering question after question at my dining room table. His opponent did the same. This experience made it clear to me that even though he did raise over $100,000 for his race, it was the door-to-door campaigning that won voters over. It’s one of the things I most love about living in a city the size of Pasadena. While Councilmember Wilson is not running for reelection, it should be noted that he has always refused to accept donations over $5,000. He and Councilmember Rivas openly support the state limits on donations as they made clear on October 18.
I hope the Pasadena Mayor and City Council will do what’s right for their constituents and the community. In the end, they postponed the vote and punted it to the Legislative Committee that meets October 26, 2021 at 2pm on Zoom. Here’s the link for anyone who wishes to attend or send comments or both. https://www.cityofpasadena.net/commissions/city-council-legislative-policy-committee/
I urge anyone who cares about democracy to please join this important meeting.
Denise Robb is a Professor of Political Science at Pierce College* and a long-time resident of Pasadena.
*The views and opinions expressed in the editorial are those of the author alone and does not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any employer or organization the author is associated with.
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