In this Citizens United era, conventional wisdom is that cash dictates electoral outcomes. But the demise of democracy to the mega-checkbook may have been proclaimed prematurely. 

On the national stage, Jeb Bush’s spring 2015 haul of more than $100 million in Super PAC cash was supposed to “shock and awe” the sprawling field of GOP presidential candidates into submission. But as fall turned to winter, Jeb!’s campaign was eating the dust of mavericks like the self-funded Donald Trump, whose biggest expenditure so far was for “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, and Ben Carson who very capably switched from brain surgery to harvesting small donations on the Internet. 

In Ohio, the backers of Issue 3—the plan to legalize marijuana—spent more than $25 million on slick TV ads and glossy direct mailers to seduce voters who were open-minded about ending the criminalization of what so many merrily have done with no evident adverse effect other than the munchies. 

But despite the lavish spending, Issue 3 crashed and burned after voters learned that the financiers of that high-priced media barrage stood to earn outsized profits as members of the weed growing cartel that Issue 3 authorized. Voters seemed ready to end the pot prohibition, but the so-called growers’ monopoly was one toke over the line.

Here in Cincinnati the evidence that big checks can’t sell a bad idea came via Issue 22—a charter amendment levying a permanent 1 mill real estate tax to fund $80 million in park improvement projects selected by the mayor. The projects included the introduction of a beer garden and mountain bike trail in Mt. Airy Forest, bike trails along an old rail right-of-way in Hyde Park, an urban campground along I-75 in Roselawn, and the restoration of the old King Records Studio in Evanston. It was a laundry list of goodies seemingly constructed to assemble a winning coalition of voters. 

Mayor Cranley and some of Cincinnati’s major corporations backed issue 22 with an extravagant blitzkrieg of TV and radio ads, mailings and robocalls that apparently approached $1 million in spending before the last out-of-town consultants and pollster were paid. 

But a rag-tag grassroots opposition rallied behind civil rights icon Marian Spencer—a great lady in her 90s—who switched her position and opposed Issue 22 once she read the fine print and discovered this would be a permanent tax with extraordinary power granted the mayor to decide how it would be spent. 

A team of unlikely bed fellows came together—ranging from the anti-taxers at COAST to environmentalists like the Sierra Club, the Green Party and Audubon Society to the good government geeks at the Charter Committee and even the Homeless Coalition. They turned what first seemed like a lone wolf kamikaze mission into a Save Our Parks battle cry that exploited social media and several public forums to drive up doubts about the Issue 22. (Disclosure: this amateur journalist served as treasurer of Save Our Parks). After the Enquirer unleashed some of its best reporters to dig into questionable spending and management at the Parks Department, including a $200, 000 payment to lubricate the Issue 22 campaign, the tide turned. 

In the final week, the Mayor’s team was pedaling a poll it claimed had Issue 22 slam dunking us bothersome naysayers 56 percent to 35 percent. But Cincinnati voters were suspicious of all that big spending, and easily figured this one out. On election night 59 percent said NO to 22. By the time the final Pro-22 TV ads had aired—one featuring the mayor channeling Boomer Esiason, Oscar Robertson and Johnny Bench as he cavorted with cute little kids—Issue 22 proponents had spent an estimated $40 for each of the 23,896 votes they won. In contrast, Save Our Parks had spent about 25 cents each for their 34, 246 votes, relying not on high volume media buys, but on friend-to-friend email blasts and Facebook posts to spread their message.

All those dire warnings that democracy is for sale to the highest bidder just may have been a false alarm.