Commentary, Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary: Campaign Finance and Our Local Elections

By The CBC Campaign Finance Working Group

As part of our Little City’s unique character and sense of place, community engagement and correspondingly related effective governance are commonly mentioned as key ingredients that help make up our “special sauce.” Indeed, many of our citizens – young and old, newcomers and long-time residents – are volunteer activists who work diligently to make Falls Church a wonderful place to live. For example, if one steps into any of the myriad nightly local board, commission, or other civic organization meetings, what they’ll readily see is good governance at work, with participants routinely showing their commitment to trying to keep our City running smoothly and move forward to a brighter future.

But, as we consider our “special sauce,” there’s another critically important element that must be mentioned: our long-lived model of local elections. For decades elections for the School Board and City Council have been at the center of effective governance in our Little City. They have truly been local in concept and practice and accessible to and affordable for any qualified citizen interested in being a candidate. In addition, reflecting this long-established construct, they have been characterized by a pattern of campaign spending that has been remarkably restrained. Campaign expenditures have been for typical items, such as yard signs and printed materials; sponsorship of local events, ads in the Falls Church News-Press and on social media, t-shirts and buttons, and campaign launch, election night and other events in between. 

However, in recent times things have been changing dramatically. We’ve all become aware of the alarming trend that’s been evolving, in which national interests and organizations have injected themselves into local school board and city council elections, fueling selected candidates’ campaigns with enormous sums of money and other resources. This has been happening across the country, throughout Northern Virginia and, as of the 2021 election cycle, right here in Falls Church, where for the first-time large contributions from outside sources were made to candidates.  Making this situation even more concerning, campaign contributions and expenditures in Virginia are virtually unregulated and can be used by candidates however they may wish during the election and after it’s over.

Spurred by these findings and concerned about the threat they represent, CBC invited 21 local groups and organizations to discuss the campaign finance issue. The meeting took place on May 17, with designated representatives and/or members of the AAUW, Women’s History Group, Welcoming Falls Church, the League of Women Voters, VPIS, Falls Church Forward, Bike Falls Church and two elected local officials. Results included: A clear consensus that campaign funding from outside organizations and interests are threatening our City’s guiding principles of keeping local elections local, affordable, and accessible; agreement that public attention needs to be focused on this matter to forestall it from happening again; and a discussion of possible ways to address this problem, including developing a plan to apply “soft pressure” on those intending to stand for election, via a voluntary signed Campaign Finance Pledge, which might include language such as:

“I pledge to make every effort to support my campaign with contributions from family, friends and neighbors who hold the interests of Falls Church uppermost in their minds. Whenever possible, I will endeavor to seek and accept only contributions from those residing within our borders, longtime friends and family excepted.”

CBC volunteers are working on developing this voluntary candidate pledge and will circulate the draft for public review and input in time for the upcoming campaign season. Additionally, we intend to carefully monitor candidate fundraising results and assure that that information is posted conspicuously and regularly. 

We sincerely look forward to an ongoing public discussion of the campaign funding issue and widespread attendant input from the community. The more people involved, the more intense the spotlight and the greater the public pressure that can be brought to bear to assure that our School Board and City Council elections remain local, affordable, and accessible.

Questions and comment can be addressed to Submitted by the CBC Campaign Finance Working Group: Hal Lippman, Don Foley, Ross Litkenhous, Pete Davis, Sally Ekfelt, and Nancy Brandon.