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John Perilli: Signing of People’s Pledge a Qualified Success

Wednesday, April 30, 2014


The People’s Pledge signed by the Democratic Candidates for Governor is positive, but not perfect, believes John Perilli

It seemed like the bargain might never come through, but after weeks of being negotiated, marked up and bounced back and forth between lawyers, a People’s Pledge has emerged in Rhode Island’s Democratic Gubernatorial Primary. Gina Raimondo, Angel Taveras and Clay Pell have each agreed to pay the full cost of any third-party advertisements promoting themselves or attacking their opponents. It is modeled after the pledge made by Massachusetts Senate duelists Elizabeth Warren (D) and Scott Brown (R) in 2012, which held firm right up through the election.

On its face, it is a triumph. With the U.S. slouching towards oligarchy and faith in government at dangerous lows, a pledge to reject outside advertising money could be a crucial step towards restoring integrity in our campaign finance system and our government. However, the pledge is not perfect. There are still faults or cracks in it that could bring it down, leaving the race worse off than it was before the pledge was signed.

A Strong Step Forward

Let’s start with the positives.

Barring a constitutional amendment, substantive campaign finance reform appears to be the deadest dream in American politics. From the Supreme Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC that overall contribution limits for campaign donors were unconstitutional, to the proliferation of unrestrained Super PACs on both sides of politics, a no-holds-barred campaign finance system is slowly becoming the norm.

What a People’s Pledge like the one in the Governor’s race does is cut against that new norm. Besides limiting outside spending in and of itself, the People’s Pledge is a declaration of principle: No, I the undersigned am not okay with massive outside spending groups coming in and singlehandedly deciding my election. As MINDSETTER™ Russell Moore pointed out on Monday, the candidates with the most money behind them win with a frightening frequency. If money is to be the new language of politics, the pledge implies, at least let the voters speak rather than a Super PAC director with none but a financial stake in the election.

Since campaign finance laws might never be reformed, a People’s Pledge is a voluntary way to achieve a fraction of the same effect.

Ideals Versus Incentives

However, as I have written before, the voluntary nature of the People’s Pledge also poses a thorny problem: A candidate could possibly withdraw from the pact if it is to their advantage. While the pledge is a contract, it is not clear that it is a legally enforceable document, and even if it were, a court challenge would be prohibitively long and costly for any candidate.

Yes, there are penalties prescribed within the pledge. For example, if a candidate benefits from an outside ad, they pay the full cost of it. That is a punishment, plain and simple. But what if said candidate decides that they’d be better off using that money on something else? That they believed they had a choice between paying up, and winning the election? They would announce their withdrawal for the pact, and not pay the penalty.

Say, for example, one candidate is reaching dire straits down the stretch. It’s August, and the polls are close. A surge of independent advertising, though, could put him or her over the top. Would he or she rather adhere to the pledge and save her reputation in the short term, or win? All that would be necessary to withdraw from the pledge is a publicity cover. He or she would then enjoy a week of unmatched outside advertising, while the other two campaigns scrambled to catch up. With only a month or so left before the primary, this head start could decide the election.

This is the deepest flaw inherent in any People’s Pledge: the closer the election is, the stronger incentive each candidate has to break the pact and enjoy those precious few days with the advantage. The only thing that could solve this: A last-resort punishment mechanism made either as an informal agreement or written into the pledge itself.

To Play and to Punish

It may sound contrary to the idealistic spirit of the pledge, but the best way to keep the candidates from balking is the threat of retaliation. Not just a voluntary punishment, like one candidate paying for an offending ad, but a cold, hard counterstrike. Did one candidate break the pledge? For a week, the other two could rain negative advertising on them, funded however they choose, saying that the rogue candidate broke their pledge. The “broken promise” narrative is a convincing one, and could make withdrawing from the pledge more damaging than not.

However, the complications only thicken here. Of the two campaigns who kept their word, which one picks up the cost of the punishment ads? Should it be divided evenly by raw price, or by some percentage of money that each candidate has? This is an important concern, because each of the two remaining campaigns has an incentive to save their money, and let the other do the dirty work. If none of this is cleared up, the campaign could devolve into an ugly brawl, much worse than it would have been if the pledge had never been signed at all. Don’t believe me? Read the story of what happened to last year’s Boston Mayoral Race when their plans for a Pledge fell apart. I used the example before, and I’ll use it again, because it illustrates so well what’s at stake if the Pledge fails.

Remaining Optimistic

Despite these potential pitfalls, the signing of the pledge is fundamentally positive. The idea of the People’s Pledge is an experiment, and an experiment takes many painstaking trials to get right. We cannot refuse to try them just because they might fail. I applaud the three gubernatorial candidates for their enterprise and cooperation, and John Marion from Common Cause RI for brokering it. I’ll sit back on my couch a bit more easily this primary season, knowing that if I see an ad on TV, it will have at least been paid for and authorized by someone in my area code.


John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats and works for Magaziner for Treasurer. The opinions presented in this article do not represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member. You can follow John on Twitter @JohnPerilli.


Related Slideshow: RI Candidates with the Most Social Media Reach

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10. Lorne Adrain

Candidate for Mayor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 439
Campaign Twitter Followers: 208

Total: 647

How Social is the Adrain Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 78
Campaign Tweets: 26

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9. Jorge Elorza

Candidate for Mayor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 1,287
Campaign Twitter Followers: 573

Total: 1,860

How Social is the Elorza Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 74
Campaign Tweets: 180

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8. Brett Smiley

Candidate for Mayor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 1,461
Campaign Twitter Followers: 704

Total: 2,165

How Social is the Smiley Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 27
Campaign Tweets: 289

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7. Michael Solomon

Candidate for Mayor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 1,341
Campaign Twitter Followers: 987

Total: 2,328

How Social is the Solomon Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 643
Campaign Tweets: 1,086

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6. Daniel Harrop

Candidate for Mayor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 1,460
Campaign Twitter Followers: 1,100

Total: 2,560

How Social is the Harrop Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 34
Campaign Tweets: 862

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5. Clay Pell

Candidate for Governor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 1,672
Campaign Twitter Followers: 1,077

Total: 2,749

How Social is the Pell Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 1,738
Campaign Tweets: 31

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4. Allan Fung

Candidate for Governor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 2,176
Campaign Twitter Followers: 2,810

Total: 4,986

How Social is the Fung Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 146
Campaign Tweets: 1,154

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3. Ken Block

Candidate for Governor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 4,516
Campaign Twitter Followers: 884

Total: 5,400

How Social is the Block Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 1,328
Campaign Tweets: 1,665

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2. Angel Taveras

Candidate for Governor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 3,544
Campaign Twitter Followers: 3,209

Total: 6,753

How Social is the Taveras Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 51
Campaign Tweets: 325

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1. Gina Raimondo

Candidate for Governor

Campaign Facebook Likes: 3,870
Campaign Twitter Followers: 3,965

Total: 7,835

How Social is the Raimondo Campaign?

Talking about on Facebook: 547
Campaign Tweets: 531


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