Poll workers collected ballots at San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Photo by Chris Stone
Poll workers collect ballots at San Diego County Registrar of Voters. Photo by Chris Stone

I was asked to sign aboard as chair of the San Diego Clean Elections Campaign some five years ago and I’ve continued in that position because I think the time has come for the voters of the city of San Diego to decide if they want to embrace the option of publicly funded elections. 

Being a realist, I knew “downtown interests” (developers, big property owners and construction titans, among others) pretty much controlled what did and did not pass muster before the City Council. But the Clean Elections movement which began locally in 2000 has been gaining traction, falling just short of ballot qualification in 2020.

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And then came 101 Ash Street. The former Sempra Energy building the city now owns was supposed to house city workers but is so dangerous from asbestos that it is uninhabitable. An estimated $115 million or more in repairs will be required before employees can move in, or it will cost the taxpayers $28 million to tear down and start from scratch.

What is the connection between the current effort to qualify a fresh ballot initiative for 2024 and the still-unfolding Ash Street debacle? The answer to that question I believe is obvious.

Candidates who forswear private monies but have the means to launch potentially winning campaigns are in a much stronger position to nix such disasters. Even with the best of intentions it remains a truism that in politics it is hard to be wined and dined and then vote against the people who bought you the dinner.

So imagine if the following credible scenario had unfolded during the Faulconer administration: Those members of the city council elected under the Clean Elections banner, being impervious to the pressures of special interest money, start to ask hard questions about the viability of the Ash Street deal. 

Imagine city staff and outside experts who are thus encouraged to dig deeper and share information with council members they know are immunized against powerful private interests. Imagine an early investigation and early action by the City Attorney as directed by the council. Imagine results which are based on public, not private interests and thus save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

Imagine that.

A clean elections alternative to the present tainted system in San Diego would also result in a number of strategic long-range advantages. First, candidates could focus all their energy and time canvassing their districts and meeting the people who live there instead of raising money. 

Second, the public funding of campaigns expands genuine choices for voters because candidates who choose to run under the “clean” banner will be clearly identified on the ballot.

Third, current public funding in places like Arizona and Maine has proven successful in encouraging more participation by qualified candidates, something which would be a huge benefit to San Diego.

The goal of Clean Elections is to broaden and deepen the democratic process and offer an alternative to the tsunami of capital that washes over the body politic and swamps the public interest. In San Diego, the effort to put public financing of campaigns on the 2020 ballot failed by a single vote before the council. The story in 2024 can be different if the people choose to make it so.

The clean elections movement can’t displace the present system but would offer the voters an exciting alternative. In private conversations with numerous current and former office holders and members of their staffs I’ve found there is a genuine longing for public funding as a much-needed antidote to the malady that has led us to the 101 Ash Street debacle and other costly missteps.

I believe it is fair to say that only the naive and the newborn are unaware that money means influence and that big money influences absolutely. For a tiny fraction of what the 101 Ash Street building alone will cost San Diegans we can take a giant step toward a more effective democratic process by including the option of publicly financed campaigns.

It is not too early to use your voice and let your San Diego City Council representative know that the council should commit to placing an initiative on the 2024 ballot which will give the voters of the City of San Diego a choice between a system powered by money and one in which the power behind the candidate belongs to the people.

Mark Linsky recently retired as an adjunct professor of political science at San Diego City College.