Common Cause is a public-interest group revered by those who rely on its mission statement and its reputation earned long ago for efforts to improve the functioning of democracy. Common Cause New Mexico (CCNM) declares itself
“dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, reinventing an open, honest and accountable government that serves the public interest, and empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.”
However, an older organization with newer personnel, Common Cause no longer always practices what it preaches. An instance is CCNM’s proposed ordinance to promote public financing in Las Cruces elections. Ironically, its proposal and political approach directed by Executive Director Viki Harrison and executed by local agent Craig Fenske undermine the democratic principles of its mission statement—all in the name of enhancing democratic elections.
Common Cause is rightly concerned about the influence at all levels of government, of unlimited amounts of money in political campaigns, competition in election races, and voter participation. CCNM assumes that such problems plague Las Cruces elections and proposes an ordinance creating a program to address them. In league with some City Council members, it has developed this proposal to provide some funds for qualifying candidates for mayor, council, and judge to partly offset private funds, encourage more candidates, create more choices, and increase voter participation in elections. However, its proposal does not represent public wishes or serve the public interest, and its approach does not reflect adherence to democratic processes.
CCNM’s initiative does not respond to any widespread desire by “ordinary people” for public campaign funding. Harrison claims that CCNM responded to a few interested people:
I am always transparent about who we talk to and this idea of exploring public financing came from a LWV luncheon that I was at a few years ago in Las Cruces. Several life-time residents of Cruces said they wanted to enact a public financing system for municipal races since public financing is one of the reforms many organizations support. I told them we liked the idea (having passed similar laws in Alb and SF) and would work with them to see what the city wanted.
It took me a couple of years to raise some money to bring someone on but when I did we started meeting with various groups and then worked up the proposal that we gave the city.
Though she purports to be “always transparent,” Harrison has since refused to identify the “life-time residents” or “various groups.” Confirmation of her claim is impossible. Given her claim to have passed similar laws in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I wonder whether she suggested the idea and some LWV members supported it.
CCNM has done little to rally the public to its proposal. Most Las Cruceans know about it only from columns, letters, and website comments by Fenske and me. However, these exchanges have not engaged the issues. Fenske asserts general problems and CCNM’s proposed solution; I question whether the problems exist in local elections and whether its proposal addresses any of them. He describes administrative details and annual costs; I question whether the benefits justify the costs. He has never answered to these important questions.
I have also raised important practical issues—gaming the program for profit, running phony candidates to divide the opposition vote, and thereby enabling candidates of a minority party to control Council in governing a powerless citizenry mostly of a majority party—issues which Fenske has not addressed. CCNM’s proposal could create a situation contradicting the democratic principle of government with the “consent of the governed.”
CCNM’s responses to my questions disrespect both dissent and dissenters from its position on public funding of elections. In a column, Fenske lied that I was indifferent to “dark” or outside money in campaigns. At a public forum, Harrison avoided answering my questions by rudely dismissing them and me as known to all. After it, she privately accused me of beating her up—metaphoric language to bully me by implying a common feminist charge that men abuse women. CCNM claims that it wants “people to make their voices heard in the political process,” but its conduct implies only voices agreeing.
Otherwise, CCNM has not tried to engage the public about its proposal. It has not issued a statement of the problems relevant to Las Cruces, of the ability of the proposal to solve them, and of benefits and costs. It has not admitted relevant facts: candidates supported by outside funding did not win any races in the latest election; all City Council races have been contested for the past ten years, some with more than two candidates for one seat; and no data show that low voter turnout reflects a lack of candidates, the choice of candidates, or frustration that they have not addressed issues of concern to citizens. It provides no support for its claim that programs in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with different cultures, histories, and demographics, would succeed in Las Cruces. It omits from its proposal measures of program success or failure and a sunset provision.
Whether Las Cruces has election-related problems so severe that they require a potentially dangerous and addictive “fix” costing $200,000 annually is doubtful. CCNM refuses to answer that three-times-$64,000 question. How its proposed ordinance provides for that annual cost is problematic. The critical provision in the proposal is its dictate for annual funding: “The City Council shall annually appropriate $2 per City of Las Cruces resident per year...from the City General Fund to the Fair Elections Fund.”
This provision is inconsistent with CCNM’s commitment to “open, honest, and accountable government.” It corrupts the annual budgeting process by automatically earmarking funds for one item in advance and thereby precludes comparison with funds for other items. It denies future City Councils the use of those earmarked funds for other public purposes more highly valued in future circumstances. It denies citizens the knowledge about which budget items the earmark reduces. Moreover, by earmarking funds in each year, the proposal avoids the uncertain outcome of public debate about allocating $400,000 in election years. It sets a precedent for mandatory earmarks. So this provision hinders future public debate on this ordinance and its costs. What first appears simple and sensible is finally sinister in undermining democratic processes.
There is good news. Even if City Council enacts it, CCNM’s proposed ordinance lacks legal force because one Council cannot dictate to a future Council. Any future Council has the choice of following or rescinding it, perhaps even just ignoring it. Puzzling it is that CCNM has attempted so much to achieve so little.
The process used to develop this ordinance is a disgrace to honest government. CCNM and City Council advocates believe the ordinance justified by good intentions, which, as is well known, pave a famous road to an infamous place. Harrison and Fenske could have sent Council a fully explained and developed proposal for public discussion. Instead, they have operated clandestinely, likely fearing that the public, after scrutiny and debate, would reject it. They have lobbied Council members and co-opted some by involving them in its development. With their minds made up before a public meeting to formally present and officially approve the ordinance, these Council members join Harrison and Fenske in making a sham of democratic debate. So much for CCNM’s professed commitment to “empowering ordinary people to make their voices heard in the political process.”