In the modern world of electoral politics, even smaller cities like Santa Fe face an uphill battle to keep money out of politics.
A case in point: Santa Fe Mayoral candidate Javier Gonzales posted a link on his Facebook page responding to an editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican that denounced a recently-formed city political action committee. He wrote that he agreed with the newspaper's stance, which criticized Progressive Santa Fe PAC for undermining the city's public campaign financing system.
"As I've said all along, with no winks or nods, the only labor help I'll be accepting are volunteers and $5 contributions," he wrote. "We're running this campaign on our own and ask any and all outside groups to respect that."
The PAC in question formed last month to "advance equity and justice, create high-wage jobs [and] promote sustainable economic development." It's mayoral candidate of choice? Javier Gonzales.
As Santa Fe gears up for the March 2014 election —its first mayoral election with public campaign financing —"soft money" PACs may still undermine the point.
"I think the whole purpose of public financing was to keep special interest groups from dumping money into campaigns and affecting the outcome," says former Santa Fe County Manager Roman Abeyta, another mayoral candidate.
They have until Nov. 18 to collect 600 individual $5 donations from registered city voters. Candidates then turn over the collected $3,000 to the city, which after certifying the donations all came from real voters, gives back $60,000. Mayoral candidates who meet the public financing requirements will then be barred from spending a penny more than the $60,000 on their campaigns and from taking gifts of goods or services.
The candidates are also allowed to raise "seed" money up to the time they meet the public financing guidelines. The rules limit mayoral candidates to $6,000 worth of individual donations from people or businesses that don't exceed $100. The seed money is there to allow candidates to campaign while they wait to qualify for the public system. If any seed money is leftover from the day they qualify for public funding and on, that money must be given to the city.
But even if every mayoral candidate is able to qualify for public funds, candidates won't be able to stop soft money from PACs like Progressive Santa Fe from coming into the race. Gonzales tells SFR that he hopes the PAC steps out of the mayor's race.
Nearly all the other candidates have made public statements against PAC funding as well.
Sandra Wechsler, a political strategist who worked on Mayor David Coss' two mayoral campaigns as well as his failed bid for the state Legislature, heads Progressive Santa Fe. As for Gonzales' call that the PAC drop out of the mayor's race, Wechsler says the PAC doesn't "make strategic decisions based on what any candidate does or does not want us to do."
But she says that Progressive Santa Fe registered partly to counter potential last minute outside spending like that of the $30,000 spent against Coss during the last four days of his unsuccessful 2012 bid for state Legislature (some soft money did come on Coss' behalf and his opponent, state Rep. Carl Trujillo, denounced the last-minute spending by super PAC Reform New Mexico Now that went after Coss).
Wechsler adds that Progressive Santa Fe will likely stay out of the mayor's race if the candidates' finances remain on an equal playing field.
"We strongly support public financing and applaud candidates who choose public financing," she writes in an email to SFR.
Viki Harrison, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, which advocates to keep money out of politics, says it remains to be seen how effective Santa Fe's public campaign finance system will be. She notes that in her opinion, city voters are likley to sneer at outside money. She applauds Progressive Santa Fe for voluntarily capping contributions at $2,500 per person. City law doesn't cap how much money a PAC can raise or spend.
Harrison adds that there's a role for PACs in clean elections.
"You want the outside groups to be able to talk," Harrison says. "But there's a difference between sending press releases, writing letters to the editor and spending a ton of money in an election."
To date, Progressive Santa Fe has raised $2,000 and hasn't yet issued advertisements or mailers, Wechsler says. The first offical finance report for the group, which will detail the names of individual contributors is due to the city 40 days before the election.