“We have to fight fire with fire.”
We heard that statement repeated frequently over the last week , by candidates, by political donors and by average voters. It happened so often, in fact, that we can’t help but think the phrase has been used as a rallying cry to raise funds in what most of the candidates have described as a surprisingly vicious campaign season.
Held in May, these local elections are ‘supposed’ to be nonpartisan. But most of us have come to realize they’re not. Or at least, they’re not anymore.
As politics at the national and state levels have become increasingly divisive on both sides, moderate or centrist candidates are being disregarded in favor of more hard-line candidates at every level.
That trend is happening right here in our city council elections and that political division has raised the stakes dramatically.
This year’s city council races have put six candidates at the table, vying for three seats each in Cedar Park and Leander. Collectively, those candidates have collected nearly $120,000 in direct and in-kind donations since January. Adding in carryover funds from 2018 and before, the candidates have brought a total of more than $400,000 to this year’s election.
It’s a staggering sum for local elections when not very long ago a race could self-financed with a few hundred dollars.
For comparison, when the Leander Police Department recently added a much-needed forensic computer lab, the total cost of the equipment and training was around $65,000.
To a great extent, the drive to outgain and outspend opponents is a direct result of local races becoming more politicized. Local chapters of the Democratic and Republican parties have paid attention, and the Western Williamson County Democrats have even made direct campaign contributions.
In response, a number of conservative individuals have raced to “fight fire with fire.”
One wealthy Leander resident, Andy Pitts, told us his goal is to see more conservative leadership in place in both Leander and Cedar Park. He’s put his money where his mouth is — spending more than $41,000 to back conservative candidates in the Cedar Park and Leander council races just in 2018 and 2019.
Instead of debates over issues facing these cities, like property tax rates, police and fire department funding, how to handle increasing traffic congestion, the battle has become about ideology — and raising enough money to battle an opposing political viewpoint.
Making campaign contributions is a way for voters to have a voice in their local elections. However, we think voters should be concerned when moneyed interests support candidates with big dollars, raising the stakes to the point where it requires a candidate to either be independently wealthy, have a wealthy backer, or accept a large amount of funding from business interests in order to run for an office that pays exactly zero.
We also think it should concern all residents that some have admitted to using Political Action Committees to try to obscure the source of campaign funding and even to hide potential conflicts of interest between donors and elected officials.
Every candidate we spoke with since last Wednesday expressed regret that local elections have become so costly, and all said they supported the idea of some sort of limit or cap on donations.
As Cedar Park resident Bryon Jones told us last week, “When it’s this much money, it gives me the idea that somebody thinks they can just spend enough and they’ll win an election.”
We believe enacting a cap on donations, possibly in the form of limiting how much any one individual or organization can donate in an election cycle, would go a long way toward minimizing the perception that council races are for sale to anyone with deep enough pockets.
Since each candidate we spoke with expressed support for that idea, we call on those who are elected to take action on the issue of campaign finance reform at the local level ahead of next year’s election.
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Editor's note: This editorial was published following our investigation into the skyrocketing costs of campaigning for city council seats in Cedar Park and Leander. That story can be found here: http://hillcountrynews.com/stories/follow-up-large-money-donations-dominate-city-council-races,79993