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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sometimes, It Comes Down to Money

If you haven't read my Roundin' Up The News post (and why haven't you?) then you may not know that Carol Marsh was defeated in her bid to become Hoboken's first female mayor. She fell about 1,400 votes shy of winning - which is a considerable amount (somewhere around 17% of the vote). A large part of this has to do with the internal workings of the campaign, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that she was outspent 10:1. David Roberts actually spent a million dollars in this campaign. For a mayoral race. A million dollars.

Too often, politics comes down to who has the deepest pockets. That's reality, and I don't expect it to change a whole lot in the near future. However, unless we work to change it, it will not even change in the far future. In other words, it's an overwhelming job, but putting it off doesn't make it smaller. In fact, it only makes it a bigger problem.

Of course, campaign finance reform has been tried before. More often than not, the results have been next to nothing - at best. The result has been a string of reformers left scratching their heads and wondering why they even bothered to fight.

I would like nothing more than to say that things are different now. They aren't. More often than not, the campaign goes to the highest bidder - literally.

But if that's true, it's only because we refuse to insist that things be different. Here in New Jersey, Doug Forrester spent around ten million dollars just to win the Republican primary. He'll probably go through at least twice that much in the general election and the same is true for the Democratic Candidate Jon Corzine. Why is it that we tolerate an auction for our political offices? Candidates for office are forced to either be independently wealthy and use their own money or whore themselves to everyone with a big enough checkbook. Increasingly, it's a combination of the two.

We deserve better.

Our democracy is supposed to work on the principle of "one man - one vote". The influence of big money in political campaigns is nothing more than the attempt to get a little bit extra for your vote. In fact, in the case of non-voters donating money, it's an opportunity to get one vote out of none. After all, which really has more pull in determining the election: one vote or one million dollars?

Of course, you have the contributions that are intended to curry favor, as well. I'm not talking about all contributions - and I generally try to stay away from the claim that contributions are given to influence policy. Isn't that true of the political contest in general? If Candidate A wants to build a park and I want a park built, then I am not defeating the system by contributing to his campaign. No, it is when Candidate A wants a park and Candidate B doesn't want a park and I give a large amount to both sides that the system is truly defeated. I simply cannot both want a park and not want a park. The contribution, then, is given solely for the purpose of buying influence with whoever wins. That, my friends, is a defeat of the entire purpose of democracy.

The first thing that we need to do, in my opinion, is limit donations to the electoral district in which the campaign will take place. If Carol Marsh wants to run for mayor of Hoboken again, then she should only take contributions from people within the City of Hoboken. There is simply no reason why someone in Jersey City or California should be able to fund a mayoral race in a town in which they don't even want to live. The people of Alabama, for example, should have no influence over and election in Kansas.

The second thing we should do is to limit contributions to natural persons who are eligible to vote. Corporations should not be able to determine who gets elected, nor should political action committees or "independent" attack groups. Democracy is built upon "one man - one vote" - which means that if you aren't a human being you shouldn't have any part in the election. If enough individuals are effected by a company's actions, they'll vote accordingly. Each of the people who work for the company already have a vote - they simply don't need more influence than that.

While I think expenditures should be allowed to proceed unhindered, I do not think the same for donations. Simply acquiring greater wealth does not entitle a person to greater influence in an election. Rather than limiting contributions to a particular candidate, we should limit political donations by individuals - by amount and with the stipulation that a person cannot support more than one candidate in the election.

I also would like to see a blind private-public funding of elections. Rather than sending money directly to the candidate - who can then know who to thank and in what way - the money should be sent to an independent commission and then disbursed to the candidate. The commission takes care of all the filing requirements - checking and double-checking that all the proper laws have been followed. The candidate then only has to worry about getting their message out. In order to provide a fair playing field, public funds should be used to guarantee a minimal amount necessary to run the campaign. If the candidate gathers more than some maximum amount, all public funds must be repaid and no further amount would be disbursed.

I know that I'm leaving myself open to the charge of betraying these principles. After all, I've openly made please for funding to various campaigns without stipulating that I believe you should be directly involved in the campaign area. I admit that I'm guilty of this. I am, at the bottom, a realist. Imposing all of these restrictions on a candidate right now would do nothing but ensure total failure in an election. If that weren't true, then there would be no need of implementing them.

So, we must use the rules as they are to our benefit in trying to change those rules. In the meantime, support candidates who are actually trying to change the way the game is played. People like Chris Bell in Texas who noted recently that there are campaign contribution limits at every level of government in Texas except in state-wide races. You have to wonder why it's a good thing to limit contributions to a federal Senator, but not to the State Governor. People like Andrew Raseij in New York City who has voluntarily limited contributions to his campaign to the (insane) level of $100 per person.

It's a small start, but it's important to get started now. Today. Each day that goes by is one more day our political leaders are bought like a cheap whore by people and corporations with the money to buy them.

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