For the first time, City Council candidates can access public campaign funds if they follow certain rules. Photo: Ned Fielden

In 2016, Berkeley voters approved Measure X1, which established a system for public financing of races for the City Council and the office of the mayor. It is being put to use for the first time in the current election cycle.

So far, 12 of the 14 candidates running for City Council are using public financing and, for most of them, it’s made campaigning much easier.

The rules are clear. If candidates pledge to only get individual donations of $50, and they eschew donations from political action committees, they are eligible to get a 6-to-1 match from city funds up to a maximum of $40,000 for City Council races. The limit is $120,000 for a mayor’s race. Only donations by Berkeley residents can be matched. That means that candidates only have to raise $6,667 to have $40,000 to spend. Once candidates max out, they are allowed to continue to raise funds, but only in $50 increments, which are not matched.

If candidates do not participate in the public campaign financing, they are subject to Berkeley’s election laws that put a $250 cap on donations.

For Rigel Robinson, 22, who graduated from UC Berkeley in May and who is now running for the open seat in District 7, long held by Kriss Worthington, the matching funds have made a difference. The system has allowed his campaign to “focus on reaching out to voters instead of making everything about how many dollars we can get,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to convince an undergrad that maybe if they can drop as much money as one burrito to try and get some [student] representation on City Council, they might be willing to do that.”

Rashi Kesarwani, who is running in District 1, the seat that Linda Maio has held for almost 26 years, said fundraising is less difficult because of the matching funds. She had gone through Emerge America, a program that trains Democratic women how to run for office, and had steeled herself for the fundraising necessary to run an effective campaign. But it’s been easier not asking for $250, she said.

“It made it easier to do the ask since I was only asking for $50,” she said.

City Councilwoman Lori Droste, who is running for her second term in District 8, said she also finds it easier to ask for a lower sum. Droste, who voted to put Measure X1 on the 2016 ballot, said she is also delighted that the matching funds have made it possible for a larger variety of people to become candidates.

Previously, more than half of Berkeley’s campaign funds came from fewer than 350 households.

“If you have significant Berkeley support it makes it much easier to raise money,” said Droste. “It makes it easier for people with a lot of grassroots support to enter races.”

Measure X1, which was suggested and backed by Maplight, a Berkeley organization that scrutinizes the role of money in political races, as well as a group of organizations called the Berkeley Fair Elections Coalition, had as a goal to diversify the pool of people who entered politics. The argument in favor of the measure in the voter handbook in 2016 pointed out that more than half of Berkeley’s campaign funds came from fewer than 350 households, just a minute percentage of the city’s residents. Much of the time, the candidate that raised the most money won the race, according to an analysis done by the coalition.

So far, three candidates have maxed out on the amount they can get from public financing. They are Kesarwani, Droste and Kate Harrison, who is running for re-election in District 4. Mary Kay Lacey, who is also running for the District 8 seat, is very close to the maximum, according to campaign finance records filed with Berkeley. Berkeley has so far provided $145,831.26 in matching funds and has allotted $62,000 in staff costs to administer the program, said Numainville. The money comes from Berkeley’s General Fund and there is an annual $500,000 cap.

One notable absence from those participating is Igor Tregub, who is running for the vacant District 1 seat. Tregub was a main signatory of the ballot argument in favor of Measure X1 in the 2016 voter guide.

Tregub was disqualified from getting public funds because in April he gave his campaign a $100 loan, which is above the maximum amount allowed. He could not withdraw that loan because all candidates must sign a pledge where they swear they have not sought out donations of more than $50, according to Mark Numainville, the city clerk.

“Igor is unable to participate since his $100 contribution precluded him from signing the penalty of perjury statement on the Application for Participation,” Numainville said in an email.

Tregub is trying to put a positive light on the situation, though, by emphasizing that he has broad-based support.

“At the beginning of my campaign, I went back and forth on whether to apply, but it turns out a $100 loan I gave to my campaign precluded me from seeking public financing anyway,” he wrote in an email. “I’m grateful to have received money from over 100 individual donors as well as from several labor unions — a demonstration of the grassroots support behind my campaign — and I’m the only major candidate in District 1 who signed a pledge to not accept contributions from corporate PACs or developers.”

Those taking public campaign funds — and in District 1 they include Kesarwani and Margo Schueler, a public works commissioner whom Maio has endorsed, and Mary Behm-Steinberg —are precluded anyway from taking funds from PACS.

Kesarwani appears to be the only candidate to have received funds from people who have built buildings in Berkeley. Those funds total $250.

Greg Magofña, who is running in District 4, said he has been grateful for the public matching funds but it has illuminated an unfortunate aspect of Berkeley — that it is hard for young people to afford to live here.

“I don’t really have a lot of friends with a lot of money to give… so the city match really helps. But, on the other side of the coin, it’s really tricky because most of my friends have been priced out of Berkeley and have just left Berkeley.”

This article was updated after publication to state that 14 people, not 15, are running for Berkeley City Council.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...