More primaries this year, but fewer take public money

For the second time since the Citizens’ Election Program was launched in 2008, participation in General Assembly primaries is higher than in previous years, and advocates say that’s proof that public campaign financing invigorates the system.

But while the number of primary candidates has increased slightly from two years ago, the number seeking public financing of their campaigns has declined–possibly the result of legal challenges to the system.

“I am sure the uncertainty of the program has impacted whether people will participate,” said Beth A. Rotman, CEP’s director.

As of Wednesday, when most of the legislative public financing grants were finalized by the State Elections Enforcement Commission, there were 23 legislative primaries planned for Aug. 10 involving 48 candidates. At this point in the election cycle two years ago there were 22 primaries involving 46 candidates.

The overall numbers represent a significant increase from the two elections before public financing, when about a dozen primaries were held for 187 legislative seats.

But participation in public financing has declined from 2008, when 39  of 46 candidates, or 85 percent, took the grants. This year, only 31 of the 48 candidates are using public funds, about 65 percent.

Still, Rotman and other supporters of public campaign financing say, the CEP has stimulated political involvement.

“A lot of people say they are able to run because of this program,” Rotman said.

One of them is Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who was first elected in 2008 after receiving almost $25,000 in public financing. Holder-Winfield won the nomination over a party-endorsed candidate, then went on to win the general election.

“Normally you don’t have the opportunity to raise that amount of money on your own,” he said, adding some candidates with few political connections are doomed without the public funds.

Holder-Winfield won the party endorsement this year and is himself facing a primary challenge from Willie D. Greene. Holder-Winfield was awarded public financing again this year; Greene elected not to participate.

Candidates opt out of public financing for many reasons. In some cases it’s philosophical. Republican John Samperi of Killingworth, reflecting the position of GOP leadership, said he felt it wrong to spend taxpayer’s money on bumper stickers and other campaign materials.

“I do not believe in that at all,” he said. “I thought it was wrong for me to put my hand out and ask for taxpayer money.”

But nine of 19 Republicans involved in primaries are accepting public funds, including Michael Zelasky of Lisbon

“I probably would not be running” without public money, he said. “Challengers, such as myself, can’t raise the money.”

A long-running federal lawsuit over the program may also have dampened participation, Rotman and other advocates agree. A federal judge overturned the campaign finance law 11 months ago; an appellate court restored much of the law this month, but only days before the deadline for applying for primary election grants.

The court case “has been hanging over candidates’ heads,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, vice president for state operations for Common Cause, a major backer of public financing. “We will not see as robust participation as we should until the program is secure.”

Candidates also have to raise a qualifying amount in contributions of $100 or less–$15,000 for a state senator and $5,000 for a state representative. The base grant for a senate primary is $35,000, and $10,000 for a house primary.

With the application for primary election funding passed, the SEEC has awarded more than $600,000 in grants to candidates.

Candidates hoping for public funds for the general election in November have until Oct. 8 to apply. In 2008, nearly three quarters of all legislative candidates receiving grants received grants for the general election, according to the SEEC.

Flynn said that besides encouraging primary races, public financing is helping foster more contested general election races for state legislative seats.

“More contested races is good for democracy,” she said.

Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz recently said there is more competition for state legislative seats this year than in any election year since 1998.

The chief election official reported that 54 of the 187 races, or nearly 29 percent, lack a Democratic or a Republican candidate. That’s down from the 60 races that had no competition two years ago.

“Candidates that don’t have access to abundant financial resources have an opportunity to run if they can show they have support in their districts. That opens up the electoral system so we can have more contested races and different kinds of people running for office,” Flynn said.