Earlier this month, supervisors Jane Kim and Scott Wiener made news by failing to agree to take the People’s Pledge in their tight District 11 state Senate race. That’s too bad, because the pledge is the best way to keep super-rich donors and special interests from unduly influencing the outcome of elections.
So what is the People’s Pledge? It originated during the 2012 U.S. Senate campaign in Massachusetts between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and then-Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who authored the pledge. It was designed to limit the influence of outside ads on that campaign. To enforce the pledge, Warren and Brown agreed that if an outside ad ran on television, radio, print or online, the candidate benefiting from the ad would donate from his or her own campaign account one-half of the cost of the ad to a charity of the opposing candidate’s choice.
The pledge worked. After Warren and Brown negotiated and signed the pledge, it reduced outside spending by 93 percent compared with other hotly contested 2012 U.S. Senate races. In short, it’s an effective way to curb super PACs and dark money groups from unduly influencing elections.
But even if Kim and Wiener can’t agree on a pledge to limit outside ads in their campaign, the People’s Pledge should become a staple of campaigns in San Francisco and elsewhere in the years to come. Voters and the media should press candidates — ideally, soon after they announce for office — on whether they will take the pledge.
The problem the People’s Pledge squarely addresses is that rich donors and special interests can contribute unlimited amounts of money to super PACs and dark money groups. These outside groups can then spend unlimited amounts of money to unduly influence elections through ads, so long as the ads are not “coordinated” with a candidate’s campaign.
In recent years, outside groups have increasingly made attempts to game elections, often by running negative ads against candidates. Unlimited outside ad spending has led to calls to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and other controversial Supreme Court campaign finance decisions.
These decisions are having an increasingly corrosive effect on local, state and federal elections by tilting them in favor of the moneyed interests.
Still, it may be years before Citizens United is overturned — if it ever is. In the meantime, we can demand that candidates for all offices — legislative, executive and judicial — do something to prove that they truly support campaign finance reform. They can take the People’s Pledge.
Voters are fed up with outside spending on campaigns by super PACs and dark money groups. In fact, outside ads are too often responsible for a large number of negative ads, including the flood of negative mailers that we have seen in recent campaigns in San Francisco. These ads often distort a candidate’s character and record. They can also obscure the real issues in campaigns. That’s undemocratic.
But by taking the People’s Pledge, candidates can strike a blow for campaign finance reform the way that Warren and Brown did in 2012 in their U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts. They can prove to the people that they will be independent voices for all of us — whether it’s on a school board, a state court, at City Hall, in Sacramento or Washington, D.C. — and not shills for the moneyed interests. By taking the pledge, candidates can prove to the voters that they stand for clean campaigns based on direct contributions to their campaigns, which are subject to reasonable limits and clear disclosure laws.
Many candidates are idealistic when they first decide to run for office. Most candidates don’t decide to run to represent rich donors and the special interests. But if they want to prove to the people that they support campaign finance reform, there is something they can do. They can say no to the special interests by saying yes to the People’s Pledge.
Bob Ryan resides in San Francisco and was a state senate legislative staffer in Sacramento for several years during the 1970s.