Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Dave Davies: Not to nag, but let's plug that incumbent-favoring hole in campaign-finance law

WHEN MAYOR Nutter's Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform issued its report yesterday, I was happy to see that one of its first recommendations was to fix something I've written about for two years now.

WHEN MAYOR Nutter's Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform issued its report yesterday, I was happy to see that one of its first recommendations was to fix something I've written about for two years now.

I wasn't so happy to see that Nutter still won't commit to fixing it.

I hate to nag, but somebody needs to.

The problem is that the city's campaign-finance law, for all its historic merit, has a flaw that gives incumbent elected officials a huge advantage.

Because the contribution limits are applied annually, an incumbent like Nutter can get his supporters (or anyone hoping for city contracts) to contribute the maximum allowed every year.

So by the time he's ready to run for re-election and potential opponents start gearing up, he's built up an intimidating pile of cash.

The logical fix, which Nutter's task force recommended, is to make the contribution limits apply not to every year, but to every election cycle, as the federal campaign-finance law does.

To illustrate: Under the current system, an insurance brokerage firm that wants city business can make a $10,600 contribution every year, for a total of $42,400 during the mayor's first term.

If the law was changed, the contributor could max out only once before the mayor's primary election. He could then do it again before the general election.

When I asked Nutter about this in summer 2008, he said, "We should take a comprehensive look at all our campaign-finance laws. There are a number of groups we can engage and take our time - and I don't mean forever - and look at what other cities are doing and fix any concerns in our law."

So he appointed his task force, and kept raising money - more than a half-million dollars last year.

When I asked yesterday if he was now prepared to commit to this simple change recommended by his own task force, he hedged.

"There are 36 [task force] recommendations. I have not read the entire report," he said. "There's no one perfect way to do some of these things . . . we'll read through the report and see what it says."

I'm not accusing the mayor of bad faith here. He has a long track record on ethics issues, and nothing speaks louder than his gutsy decision early in the last mayor's race to abide by contribution limits when none of his rivals would.

My concern is that if he and City Council wait to act on this one simple, clearly needed fix because they want to ponder the 35 other recommendations at the same time, it might never happen.

But I have to say something about the rest of the task force report: it's fine work.

Chaired by Michael Schwartz, a former public-corruption prosecutor, the panel made some sound judgments about everything from whistle-blower protection to the need to ban nepotism and putting your squeeze on the public payroll.

Their deliberations on how much political activity should be permitted among city employees were interesting. They concluded that all city workers should be allowed to make political contributions (the charter banned it for cops and firefighters), and they should be able to wear buttons and display lawn signs. But they decided not to recommend that city workers be allowed all forms of political activity, even on their own time. Given the city's history, it's wise to tread cautiously here.

We don't want to see 200 employees of the mayor being expected to take a personal day every time there's an election and work the polls for the boss.

Their recommendations on lobbying are particularly important. Philadelphia is the largest city in the nation without any lobbyist registration and oversight, and it makes sense that folks getting paid to lobby your government ought to have to register and declare their clients and expenses.

The important thing now is that Nutter set some priorities, get some key recommendations implemented and not get bogged down trying to sell everything to a City Council with little appetite for ethics legislation.

Let's start with that change in the campaign-finance law. I hate to nag.

Send an e-mail to Dave Davies at or call 215-854-2595.