Charleston mayoral candidates could spend $1 million to get elected. Why? 

Up for Sale

The sad truth is that getting elected these days goes hand-in-hand with raising as much money as possible or pumping your own funds into a campaign. It's a system-wide failure of our democratic process.

For example, in the 2016 election cycle, including elections for president and Congress, that entire two-year, seemingly endless election, cost a combined $6.5 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Let that number sink in.

According to an analysis by the Washington Post, that amount of money could fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for 15 years; fix Flint's contaminated water 30 times over; or give every public school teacher in America a $2,000 raise.

To bring that a bit closer home, some estimates suggest flood-proofing Charleston could cost upwards of $2 billion and building a seawall could run $100 million.

From March until recently, I managed Maurice Washington's early campaign for mayor, giving me an up-close look at how money flows through those races on a local level ahead of the Nov. 5 election (and probable Nov. 19 runoff.)

When we got started, we had fundraising firms approaching us, all with proposals for how much money they could help us raise. By their estimates, it would cost at least $500,000, and up to $1 million, to run a competitive mayoral race in Charleston.

One morning, I sat behind my desk thinking about those numbers. First, why in the world should it cost $1 million to convince 9,000 people to vote you in as mayor of a city with 128,000 residents? That comes out to $111.00 spent per vote for just one of the candidates.

I'd much rather scrap the whole process, give local candidates two weeks to campaign in public together, and bring $111.00 worth of cheap domestic beer for everyone in attendance.

But in all seriousness, if candidates are going to spend $1 million to become the mayor of the City of Charleston, that money has to come from somewhere. Candidates either raise all that money on their own or they raise some and take out loans to top up their campaign coffers.

A candidate who loans their campaign money can later use campaign funds to repay themselves, essentially zeroing out that loan. But let's assume that's not what some candidates want to do, and you've given your campaign $250,000, or $500,000. Well, as mayor, your salary would be $185,000 per year. Depending on how much of your own money you spent, that's not a great return on investment if you ask me.

Whether you're raising $10,000 or $1,000,000, who is your allegiance to? The voter, the individuals who gave you money, the businesses that gave you money, or the lobbyists who came knocking?

Excuse my cynicism, but when, for example, the tourism lobby gives a campaign a donation, and a few developers do the same, they're expecting something in return. Believe me, they are not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. Everything has a price, and politics has turned into a very expensive venture.

I generally get annoyed when someone points out a problem, but can't also outline a solution. In this situation, I don't have a silver bullet — throwing that in there for you Coors Light fans — but I do have some thoughts.

One idea would be to make it as easy as possible for folks to register to vote and encourage it everywhere. I asked a group of 100 people if they knew there was an election coming up, and 80 of them had no clue. That wasn't as surprising as the fact that only 40 of them were registered to vote. The last day to register online for the 2019 election is Oct. 6, so click over to scvotes.org.

If we're tossing out ideas, why not ban or limit local campaign funding to, let's say, $10,000 to purchase flyers or signs or whatever the candidate wants. Then have dozens of public forums where every candidate has equal say.

Why does it have to be a six month, $1 million sprint to send 20,000 mailers, set out 5,000 yard signs, and who knows what else? Charleston should not be for sale.

Rouzy Vafaie is a former Charleston County Republican Party leader.


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