Campaign financing: Should Oak Park’s political candidates get public money to run?

David Melton, executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, pitches Oak Parkers on the benefits of public campaign financing at a forum at the Oak Park Public Library July 2. | Ian Fullerton/For Sun-Times Media
David Melton, executive director of Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, pitches Oak Parkers on the benefits of public campaign financing at a forum at the Oak Park Public Library July 2. | Ian Fullerton/For Sun-Times Media

An oft-touted ideal of modern politics is that the average person should be able to run for office without having to sell their soul for campaign cash.

In Oak Park, elections are not usually won through big-money campaigns, but slated candidates often stand a better chance of winning a seat than those who aren’t financially backed or who don’t make fundraising a priority.

That playing field stands to be leveled, said David Melton of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. His solution? Public campaign financing, a sort of crowd-sourced fundraising tool that tops off small-time fundraising efforts with public money.

“This system sounds idealistic, but it works quite well,” Melton told an audience of Oak Park residents at a public forum organized by Village President Anan Abu-Taleb on July 2. “[Public campaign financing] makes it possible for people who are civic-minded, but aren’t interested in schmoozing with special interests, to run.”

Held at the Oak Park Public Library, the forum was presented by Abu-Taleb as an informal discussion on whether or not Oak Parkers would back such an initiative as a funding mechanism in local elections.

Though the rules can change case by case, public financing works like this, Melton said: Candidates who opt into the program are given a cap on how much they can raise independently; that final haul, whether it hits the limit or not, is then matched by a public donor fund.

There are 14 states that currently operate candidate public financing programs.

Abu-Taleb said this kind of campaign financing could possibly expose village elections to a wider field of candidates.

“I am for choice,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s important to have competition.”

The details of how funding for this mechanism would be generated or what restrictions would be placed on financed candidates are the stuff of future conversations, Abu-Taleb said.

Annabel Abraham, who was among 40 or so audience members, suggested the funding option might encourage candidates from the village’s less affluent areas to join local races.

Abu-Taleb himself is not exactly a poster boy for the necessity of such a funding tool; in his 2013 bid for the top post, he outspent and defeated John Hedges, a candidate backed by the politically dominant Village Managers Association. Abu-Taleb used his own money to pay for about a third of his campaign.

“Not everyone can do that,” said Abu-Taleb, who owns a popular restaurant in the village.

Trustee Adam Salzman attested to the value of public campaign financing, which he became familiar with years ago, while working on a New York City election campaign in Brooklyn.

“We lost, but we became competitive when we got those funds,” he said. “I’ve seen how it can work.”

For something like this to go over in Oak Park, residents “will want to know that money isn’t going to someone who doesn’t represent Oak Park’s values,” Salzman said.

Melton said that argument tends to be a non-issue because “fringe candidates usually don’t sign up for this.”

As to the potential for public campaign financing to become a fixture in Oak Park elections, Melton said the village is a prime candidate.

“We felt that this is a community that is open to the possibility of reform,” he said.

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