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Molly Munger's Big Donations Are a Mistake

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Molly Munger is being too generous.

    The wealthy civil rights lawyer from Pasadena has given nearly $30 million to support Prop 38, a ballot initiative that would raise income taxes for 12 years to establish a new funding stream for local schools and a new Head Start-style program for California children.

    Such generosity may seem admirable, but it's not. Indeed, it's counterproductive -- for her, for the campaign, and for the worthy cause of more local control of school funds.

    Here's the problem: Munger is bankrolling the campaign virtually by herself. That hurts Prop 38, as a matter of perception and reality, by making the measure appear to be the work of one rich lady. It puts the focus entirely on Munger, not the schools and policy.

    That's a particularly big problem because Prop 38 is almost certainly going to lose. So Munger is spending her money on an initiative that won't produce a change in policy.

    Now, backing a losing initiative makes sense -- if Munger is playing a long game and trying to start a movement to make school finance a local matter again.

    (A core problem in California, after school equalization court decisions in the 1970s and Prop 13, is that school funding has been centralized in Sacramento).

    But if Munger is playing the long game and building a movement, then her strategy of funding the whole thing herself makes little sense. To build a movement, you need people to join up and feel like they have ownership. One way to do that would be to encourage people to make small contributions -- whatever they can afford -- to the movement, and to Prop 38.

    But there's no real sign of a small-donor campaign attached to Prop 38, and it's hard to get such donations when Munger is openly backing the whole thing herself.

    What would be better?

    Munger would be better off donating on a one-to-one match for every outside dollar that comes in. That would leverage her generosity in service of building a movement. Also, when people donate, they have to tell you who they are and how to contact them -- important information to have as you go forward after the election.

    And a big army of small donors can be an important selling point in demonstrating to the public that there's real support for a reform like the one Munger is seeking.

    Political consultants, of course, routinely advise that big money is necessary to win elections. But big money isn't everything, and it's very possible to spend so much money on a race that it's counterproductive (Just ask Meg Whitman, whose outsized spending on her own gubernatorial campaign became a big part of the case against her).

    So save some of your money, Molly, so you can turn the defeat of Prop 38 into a future victory.

    Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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