In the Nation's Interest

One Step Toward Fixing Our Broken Political System

by Dan Conley May 10, 2016

In Chicago’s cash-strapped environment, it’s understandable that long-term investments often take a backseat to fixing the urgent problems at hand. 

But for democracy to flourish in the Windy City, one investment just has to come off the backburner.

And that’s fixing our broken political system.

Simply put, we have no greater need than building a political system that gives people a voice and stake in solving the problems that have kept democracy down and crime and poverty up.

While the challenges are many, they include a crumbling infrastructure, school funding, a challenging business climate, and finding ways to keep peace on our streets. Such issues will continue to remain unresolved until – and only until – we provide opportunities for new community leaders to emerge.

We need fresh ideas and fresh passion. We need to empower our teachers, small business owners, and entrepreneurs to become part of the solution.

So how do we do this in a town where the doors appear to be bolted shut? Specifically, how do we create homegrown leadership in a town where election funds largely flow to insiders from outsiders?

A small-dollar match of public funds for qualified candidates is one important way for us to allow community leaders to break through and have a fair run at elective office. Displacing a few professional politicians with business people, educators, or community leaders could very well offer us new ways to address what seem to be insurmountable issues.

Earlier this year, Alderman Joe Moore introduced a small donor- match ordinance for Chicago municipal elections. But even before a single debate has been held, the media pronounced it dead on arrival! What’s the hurry?  Shouldn’t the voters, the public, the very people who’d pay for such a proposal, be able to weigh in?

It been noted that the small donor matching program would cost about eight million dollars annually. This figure pales in comparison to lost business opportunities, or what we pay to settle police misconduct lawsuits and for insider public contracts.

If we want a more vibrant economy, better police training, more school equity, or a City Council that is willing to police itself, it’s not going to happen with the folks who brought us to the dance. If we want innovative budgetary solutions, fairer contracting, or less bureaucratic permitting we shouldn’t look to the old guard for new solutions. 

A system where voters can make their small contributions meaningful through a public matching program will not only allow new leaders to emerge, it will require that those elected officials pay heed to the people who actually put them in office—the voters in their communities.

This is not a pie in the sky proposal. New York, Los Angeles, and scores of smaller cities have adopted the small donor-matching program for their municipal elections with great success.  Perhaps those cities are recognizing something that Chicago has not: the importance of respecting voter voices and growing leadership.

It’s time for Chicago to make an investment in a better future and a stronger democracy.  It’s time for the Chicago City Council to seriously consider the Small Donor proposal.

Dan Conley is Principal of Beacon Communications, a business-to-business public relations firm based in Chicago. Guest blogs are the views of the individual and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of CED.