Paula DiPerna

(WOMENSENEWS)–The 2004 presidential race has once again focused the public on the shockingly high cost of campaigns and the dismaying scarcity of women seeking the office.

President Bush has already raised $140 million; John Kerry has taken a personal mortgage on his home; Howard Dean raised $40 million largely on the Internet but won no primary. Meanwhile, Carol Moseley Braun, theonly woman in the field, barely raised enough tocover her office expenses.

Money remains the lifeblood and bloodsucker of campaigns and it keeps the candidate pipeline narrow. I know from my own first-time bid for public office.

I ran in New York for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992 against an entrenched incumbent, winning one third of the vote after only a 15-week campaign, spending only $30,000 in cash. Even supporters of the incumbent were astonished at my relative success.

My huge campaign balloon proclaimed “She’s not hot air!” and a voter at a Roman Catholic church supper kissed my picture up to the heavens. But clever slogans and unadulterated faith cannot make up for money, which in turns makes momentum.

The laudable McCain-Feingold Act has banned “soft money,” those all-purpose large amounts contributed to political parties often to peddle influence. But, true reform must go deeper. We must find ways to revitalize the entire landscape of potential candidates and make it more doable, and thinkable, for new people to run for office.

Help Raising That First Dollar

There is almost no career path for qualified political entrants and fund-raising is the biggest hurdle. Women, especially, are locked out because we simply have not found a catalytic method for bringing new female candidates into the pipeline or helping them raise that first dollar.

To do so, I propose a publicly funded “F.T.C.F”–First-Time Candidates Fund–to broaden the field of contenders, especially in federal races. This may be a long shot, but there’s plenty of precedent for publicly funded campaigns and I’ve seen up-close the difference it could make.

Such a fund would help all newcomers, but women, especially, would benefit. Today women hold only 73 of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, roughly 14 percent, and the United States ranks 58th in the world in gender parity in its national congress. Our political parties pay no real attention to building their women’s farm team and no outreach for start-up candidates in general.

A first-time candidates’ fund would refresh the electoral process at its roots. It would provide an initial modest sum of money to first-timers running for either U.S. House of Representatives or U.S. Senate, no strings attached. Monies would be available to candidates only the first time they present themselves and only if they have held no other elected federal office before. The principle could be adapted at the state level.

The most serious obstacle to me was raising money when I had so far raised none, the Catch-22 of newcomers to politics. And it’s precisely this “first-dollar” syndrome that the FTCF would offset. The fund could receive monies earmarked by the public for this purpose through a check-off box on the federal income tax return.

But donors could not stipulate their money go to a particular candidate. The fund would thus support the principle of first-time candidacies, regardless of issue positions. Though some ideologues would benefit, the overall pool would benefit more.

In a pilot phase, monies could be available only to those running in the two major parties, and only in the general election. Primaries are a valuable weeding out process to test credibility and mettle in which the public should not be asked to invest. But once a first-timer wins a general ballot slot, FTCF monies could make a critical difference–both in actual cash-on-hand and in leveraging additional contributions.

A Little Money Goes a Long Way

Amounts could be limited to the current per capita or mean income of voters in the district concerned. Such an amount is a pittance compared to campaign costs. But in many districts, a little money, especially early, can go a long way. Where I ran, $500 bought about 20 radio spots, a bonanza of air time.

Had I been able to count on a given sum once I was on the ballot, I could have lined up a campaign manager earlier or earmarked the expected funds to reserve air time for the vital last weeks of the campaign. This, in turn, would have released the daily cash I raised for ongoing expenses.

Newcomers soon learn that regular party donors tend to back names they know or candidates whose races turn on issues they particularly favor. And even “early money” PACS, including those that support women exclusively, tend to triage their financial support and focus it on races deemed “viable,” i.e., likely winners.

Thus, promising new candidates have virtually no way to build a name and challenging incumbents becomes increasingly daunting. In the last round of congressional elections, only four incumbents were removed and this entrenchment will only worsen given that the redistricting process is now highly polarized and partisan.

Some form of upfront first-time money would provide exactly what is missing for today’s fresh faces–many female–to gain early traction.

Paula DiPerna, an author and public policy analyst, was the Democratic candidate for Congress in New York’s 23rd Congressional District in 1992. It was her first campaign and thus she would not be eligible for the fund she now proposes.

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