Candidates face high bar for public financing

malloy, dan at JJB 2, 4-20-10

Dan Malloy: The only gubernatorial candidate close to qualifying for public financing

A byproduct of the John G. Rowland corruption scandal is that candidates who raise $250,000 in small amounts can qualify for $4.25 million in public financing to run for governor.

But the Citizens’ Election Program, passed a year after Rowland’s resignation in 2004, is hardly transforming the 2010 gubernatorial race: Only one candidate is close to qualifying, and time is growing short.

A month before the May 22 nominating conventions, Democrat Dannel P. Malloy has $200,000 in qualifying contributions of $100 or less. Unless they pick up the pace, no one else will make it.

“If we can’t do it, that sends a message that only millionaires can run for office, and that would be a sad day for Connecticut,” said Mary Glassman, a Democrat who has raised about $80,000 in qualifying contributions since early February.

The front-runners in each party are multi-millionaires from Greenwich, Republican Tom Foley and Democrat Ned Lamont. They have opted out of the voluntary Citizens’ Election Program and are raising money privately under rules that allow maximum individual contributions of $3,500, plus unlimited donations from the candidates.

The challenge for candidates seeking public financing is that qualifying contributions cannot exceed $100, and most of the money has to come from Connecticut.

“It’s a lot harder than it seems,” said Lt. Gov. Michael C. Fedele, who has collected $122,547 in contributions of $100 or less, the most among Republicans.

“It’s a daunting task. I’m not sure everyone understood how daunting it would be,” said Malloy, who ran for governor in 2006 under the old system. “We did.”

When the program was drafted in 2005, legislators endlessly studied the appropriate qualifying thresholds for themselves, settling on $5,000 for House races and $15,000 for Senate contests. No one, it seems, closely examined the difficulty of raising $250,000 in amounts ranging from $5 to $100.

Sound easy?

If you had a year to raise the money, maybe. That would come to about $21,000 a month or $700 a day. At a maximum contribution of $100, that means finding 7 new donors every day, 210 every month and 2,500 over the year.

One problem, especially for Republicans who waited to see if Gov. M. Jodi Rell would seek re-election, is they didn’t have a year. Rell didn’t announce her retirement plans until November, a little less than six months before the convention.

Fedele reacted quickly. He was raising money by December 1 and took in $67,073 by the end of the year. If he continued that pace, he would have qualified by now, but donations dropped off as others jumped into the race.

He collected only $55,474 in the first three months of 2010, a monthly rate of $18,491. At that pace, he won’t reach $250,000 until late September – more than a month after the primary.

Mark Boughton, the Republican mayor of Danbury, didn’t start until February. He took in $42,005 in February and March, for a monthly rate of a little more than $21,000.

To qualify by the convention, he needs to step that up to more than $100,000 a month.

“We’ll be there, but it’s a long slog,” Boughton said. “It’s not easy.”

Technically, candidates have until mid-July to raise the qualifying funds, but as a practical matter candidates need to prove their financial viability to convention delegates in May.

“If you are not qualified by the convention, you never are going to qualify,” said Ben Proto, who is managing the campaign of Republican Larry DeNardis, the former congressman from Hamden.

DeNardis looked at the system and opted out before declaring his candidacy in February.

“I said to Larry, ‘I don’t believe you can get there in a four-month period. Dan Malloy has been unable to get there in 14 months. Mike Fedele is not close in five or six months,’ ” Proto said. “It simply couldn’t be done.”

Oz Griebel, a Hartford business leader seeking the GOP nomination, had philosophical reservations about taking public money during a budget crisis, but his campaign weighed participation.

“As a tactical matter, of course we looked at it,” said Ashley Maagero, his campaign manager. “We don’t think it’s practical.”

Since becoming a candidate in February, Griebel raised $272,276 from 352 individuals, who contributed an average of $774. Lamont has raised $319,141 from 590 donors since mid-February, for an average donation of $540.

Foley, who became a candidate in December, reported raising $450,985 from 258 donors for an average donation of $1,573. He raised $339,500 from 97 donors who each gave the maximum $3,500.

Foley, who was a U.S. Senate candidate before switching the governor’s race after Rell dropped out, said he is opposed to using public funds for campaigns. Lamont says he supports the concept of public financing, but Democrats will not be able to compete with Foley’s money unless he opts out of the program, too.

There are other disincentives to participate.

A federal judge has declared the program unconstitutional, and an appeal is pending. The state budget crisis also has prompted Rell and legislators to divert money from the Citizens’ Election Program, raising questions about its financial viability.

The system provides qualifying candidates with a $1.25 million grant for a primary and $3 million for a general election campaign. To collect the $1.25 million grant, candidates must raise the $250,000 in small donations and earn a place on the ballot by winning 15 percent of the delegate vote at the convention or by petitioning.

To help participating candidates who might face a big-spending, privately financed opponent, the law allows for supplemental grants, potentially giving them $8.5 million instead of $4.25 million. But that provision was among those found unconstitutional.

Supporters say that judging the Citizens’ Election Program is difficult, given the court fight and questions over funding.

“I think we have to be very careful not to draw conclusions based on this very strange year,” said Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause, one of the strongest supporters of public financing.