While CM White touts his efforts to counter big-money in politics through helping to pass a bill supporting less-funded candidates, this bill serves to advantage incumbent candidates, including White, over challengers.
The Fair Election Amendment Act of 2018, which went into effect on May 5 of that year, aims to help candidates who are not funded by corporate PACs or other sources outside the District by matching 5 to 1 small donations from DC residents.1 To qualify for the program, candidates must agree the following: lower contribution limits than those applied by law to all candidates, a prohibition on corporate and PAC contributions, and candidates for at-large offices must participate in debates.2
While the bill appears to be a hand up for grassroots candidates, one omission in the bill gives a big advantage to incumbents. The program does not require participants running for ward seats to debate.3 Historically, incumbent candidates at all levels of government are reluctant to debate because debates give a platform to challengers while incumbents already have the platform of the office they hold. A USATODAY article remarks, “Challengers automatically gain stature by simply being on the same stage as the incumbent.”4 George E. Condon Jr., a political analyst writing for the Atlantic, also observed that incumbents tend to perform worse than challengers in debates. He cites presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush who performed poorly as incumbents in debates and lost reelection. In Mr. Condon’s opinion, presidential candidates in office tend to lose debates because they are not required to be on defense in their day-to-day activities. They instead live in a bubble of sycophantic aids and cheering supporters.5 Debates are events at which incumbents have the least control of their environment and challengers have an opportunity to shine. Commentator Marianne Levine, notes that agreeing to debate sets a up a candidate to make a “fatal gaffe” as in the case of Richard Mourdock, a Republican Senate candidate from Indiana whose promising 2012 Senate bid jumped the track after Mourdock said in a debate that rape resulting in pregnancy is “something that God intended to happen.”6
CM White was an original cosponsor of the Fair Elections Act and he contributed content to the bill.7 Additionally, Mr. White has advocated for the Fair Elections program at events hosted by the D.C. Fair Elections Coalition and he is currently using financing from the program for his reelection campaign.8 CM White should explain why this bill requires at-large candidates to debate but not ward candidates. Can there be any other reason for giving ward candidates a pass than advantaging incumbents like White? To date, CM White has not agreed to debate any of the three other candidates who will be on the ballot with him on November 3rd.
1 “The Fair Elections Act of 2018,” Office of Campaign Finance, accessed on October 25, 2020, https://ocf.dc.gov/page/fair-elections-amendment-act-2018.
2 “The Fair Elections Act of 2018,” Office of Campaign Finance, accessed on October 25, 2020, https://ocf.dc.gov/page/fair-elections-amendment-act-2018.
3 “The Fair Elections Act of 2018,” Office of Campaign Finance, accessed on October 25, 2020, https://ocf.dc.gov/page/fair-elections-amendment-act-2018.
4 “Presidents often struggle in first debates,” USATODAY, October 2, 2012, https://www.usatoday.com/story/theoval/2012/10/02/obama-presidents-often-struggle-in-first-debates/1607913/.
5 George E. Condon Jr., “Why Incumbents Lose Presidential Debates,” The Atlantic, September 27, 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/why-incumbents-lose-presidential-debates/442344/.
6 Marianne Levine, “Senators eschew debates in final campaign stretch,” POLITICO, October 21, 2020, https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/21/senate-debates-campaign-final-stretch-431018.
“D.C. Council Passes Sweeping Anti-Corruption Reform Legislation,” December 5, 2018, Public Citizen, https://www.citizen.org/news/d-c-council-passes-sweeping-anti-corruption-reform-legislation/.
8 DC Republican Party, “Big thanks to Councilmember Trayon White for coming out to the Anacostia Community meeting and talking about his support for DC Fair Elections and why we need to get big money out of politics!” Facebook, February 6, 2017, https://m.facebook.com/DCFairElections/photos/a.1685551048330167/1846985275520076/?type=3; Alex Baca, “How do 2020 Ward 8 DC Council candidates measure up on issues of housing, development, and safety?” Greater Greater Washington, March 19, 2020, https://ggwash.org/view/76708/nearly-a-dozen-people-are-vying-for-an-opportunity-to-serve-ward-8-as-councilmember-meet-them-here; Andrew Giambrone, “D.C.’s New Public Financing Program Is All The Rage In 2020,” DCist, February 6, 2020, https://dcist.com/story/20/02/06/d-c-s-new-public-financing-program-is-all-the-rage-in-2020/.
Article by Steve Buckingham