What do you do if a grassroots citizens' coalition is gaining traction to enact good government reforms? If you're in charge at Columbus City Hall, you challenge the reforms to keep them off the ballot based on procedural and technical issues and you recruit your own “grassroots” organizer to carry water for you.
The Columbus Coalition for Responsive Government filed enough signatures on petitions to place two initiatives on the May 2014 ballot -- a citywide campaign finance reform issue and a call for a vote to repeal the publicly funded Nationwide Arena bailout. The Franklin County Board of Elections has indicated that the legal system has typically supported allowing initiatives on the ballot, indicating that any legal or technical issues should later sorted out in court.
One of the challenges to the initiatives points out that one warning sentence was not printed in red ink at the top of each petition. It was instead printed in black. Printing the sentence in red is not required by the city charter, only at the state level. This is reminiscent of former Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell throwing out voter registration forms in 2004 because they were submitted on paper he claimed was not the proper weight.
ProgressOhio Executive Director Brian Rothenberg, along with attorney Donald McTigue, who also serves as Treasurer for City Council President Andrew Ginther’s PAC, filed a challenge to the coalition's campaign finance reform initiative to the Board of Elections. According to the ProgressOhio website, Rothenberg's main opposition seems to be based on the fact that many courts have ruled that money equals free speech and the reform would restrict political contributions during parts of the election cycle -- even though the initiative is based on voluntary campaign finance reform enacted in Austin, Texas that is working well. Oddly, this argument further expands the controversial Citizens United decision. It was first put forth by City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer when the Columbus City Council rejected the issue.
“I believe this would be very costly to the city and the progressive movement,” Rothenberg said during an interview on WCRSFM radio. “I believe some of the loopholes and the way it is written could set back the actual finance reform movement quite a bit because it’s got so many loopholes. I wish there was more input and involvement of people up front, but unfortunately there wasn't.”
One may wonder which side of the fence many professional progressives and Democrats are on when it comes to campaign finance reform. It would be cynical to think that they are raising money from the grassroots to overturn Citizens United while at the same time taking untold sums of corporate campaign cash. But that's what is happening. Their actions make it appear that they secretly approve of the status quo.
Rothenberg says he filed the challenge on his own behalf. It's not every day that the executive director of an issues-based liberal activist group prioritizes powerful politicians and their big money campaign contributors over grassroots initiatives to get big money out of politics. Some 22,800 petition signers and countless hours of work by activist volunteers would be negated if Rothenberg and the City are successful.
“I think there were two mistakes in the process,” Rothenberg said. “I think the proponents of it should have reached out to more progressive groups and people who have done ballot issues and ballot work before so that they could have built up a much bigger coalition and a lot of those issues would have come to the forefront in the drafting of it. But I also think, at the city level, there's no review process of the City Attorney like there is at the state level with the Ohio Attorney General. So therefore, you can just write up any petition, go and circulate it for the 5,000-plus signatures that you need and, unfortunately, then it goes directly to the Board of Elections but there are a lot of volunteers who have spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears without this legal review.”
ProgressOhio has a grassroots motif on its website and is hosting Columbus's Fourth Anniversary Rally observing the negative effects of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on January 21. It is not clear if Rothenberg realizes that local and state laws are often a way to challenge controversial or wide-ranging court decisions. It's a tactic the right-wing has used to erode Roe v Wade.
Rothenberg has been noncommittal about whether he'll work to pressure City Council to pass alternate campaign finance reforms that address his concerns. Rothenberg previously served as the Ohio Democratic Party Communication Director. Greg Haas, the Director of the Franklin County Democratic Party and a member of the Franklin County Board of Elections that will vote on the issue making the ballot also serves on the ProgressOhio Board, according to the organizations' 2011 tax filings.
Rothenberg said in the radio interview that he has not formed an opinion on the $347 million (and counting) arena bailout even though, as a progressive, he is generally opposed to corporate welfare. The arena bailout also props up the business plans of four of the city's richest families. Rothenberg repeated a City Hall talking point that voters cannot terminate a contract at the ballot box. The City is not contractually obligated to fund the arena bailout beginning January 1, 2016 which is consistent with the arena bailout initiative language.
The Coalition needs all the help it can get to demand change at City Hall in this David vs. Goliath battle. It's also working to obtain City Council funding for public access TV and to allow voters to expand and change Columbus City Council with seven seats that represent districts within the city and four at-large seats. Columbus is currently the only major city in the United States with an all at-large city council, which makes campaigns astronomically expensive even for incumbents. Most other major cities also have public access TV which allows anyone in central Ohio to produce and play their own television show. Public access TV is one antidote to Columbus's highly consolidated media ownership.
In the 2013 election cycle, Columbus City Council incumbents raised $25 to every $1 raised by challengers. The Political Action Committee fund of city council president Andrew Ginther provided 70 percent of the campaign cash for the other six council members in the past two election cycles. The Council vote to re-install Mr. Ginther as council president in early January was a foregone conclusion. It is very doubtful that Columbus politics could ever produce an economic progressive populist in the mold of U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders under the current system.
“We believe the citizens deserve fair and competitive elections,” said Jonathan Beard, spokesman for the Columbus Coalition. “We do not have that in the city of Columbus right now and there are several reasons why. First of all, under our City Charter since 1914, we have non-partisan elections. Essentially we have run-off elections. If there are three vacancies, the top six vote-getters go to the general election. Unfortunately we are party controlled, which means the parties have imposed a party overlay on our elections. So if there are three vacant seats, the Democratic Party runs three incumbent council members and the Republicans try to find three to run. That's unnecessary and it eliminates competition. There are other good, qualified Democrats who could run for office that are being screened out by the party. We could have six Democrats running in the general election if six Democrats got the most votes in the primary.”
It was George McGovern who said, “The destiny of America is always safer in the hands of the people than in the conference rooms of any elite.”
More information about the Coalition’s citizen ballot initiatives is at www.columbuscoalition.info.
Jonathan Beard also serves as chair to the Columbus Free Press Board