This winter’s strong winds blew locally and nationally. Watching Nancy Pelosi looking over George Bush’s shoulder during the State of the Union Address, the first woman to have that particular perspective, or, unluckily, sitting in the cold and dark watching for a utility truck tells you there are winds and then there are winds. The winds of change blowing through our nation’s capital had force enough to refresh much of the country as well.
While the winds of change are real — Democrats reassert themselves, while Republicans, through forced smiles, acknowledge “past mistakes” and the Administration re-assesses “new political realities” — the war goes on abroad, and at home a system of elections driven by big-money tightens its stranglehold on our representative democracy. It takes an uprising of the electorate of historic proportions — as just happened in recent congressional elections — to loosen that grip temporarily, enough for a breath. This is a rare opportunity to look clearly at how we hold elections and how we might pry the corrupting hand of big money away for good. We have that opportunity right now, right here.
Money buys elections in America. Money buys media exposure. Money buys staff and the paraphernalia of political organization. Money buys the candidates’ attention and that all-important commodity: access. Sometimes money even buys a candidate outright: position, prestige, power, vote, and all. Outrageous, but too recent and all too real to deny.
Raising money has become the single, greatest, predictable imperative in successful campaigns — fromm local judge to presidential hopeful. Virtually every candidate admits that raising the money now deemed necessary to run an even moderately competitive campaign is time consuming, distracting, and odious. Many an outstanding public servant that you never heard of has backed away, never run, and let the less squeamish, the better-connected, better-bankrolled opponent win because the money-grubbing grind is so distasteful.
Who supplies all this campaign-financing money? The answer is as jarring as it is straightforward. Money is supplied by those who are buying something. The something they want to buy is the “prestige, power, vote, and all” that comes with the successful candidate’s office. They don’t want all of it, and not all the time, just a law here, a regulation there, favorable hearing, a little — or a lot of — advocacy. To buy what they want, corporations tack onto their products’ prices the cost of campaign contributions and lobbyists. You, the consumer, get to subsidize big money’s campaign/lobbying activities.
Under our current system of election financing, the supplier of big money, or the pooling of common resources to make up big money, wins the money race most every time. The small contributor’s influence on the candidate and issues is drowned in a cascade of massive contributions. The higher the office, the truer this becomes. The 2008 presidential race — even at this early stage, and for Democrats and Republicans alike — illustrates how the system works. Candidates are ranked as serious in direct relation to the amount of money they can attract. They remain in the race only so long as they fulfill that money promise. As with horserace handicapping, big money bets according to track record and tractability, and always drives the odds. It hedges, so a bet pays off no matter who wins. And small-money voters keep getting surprised at having to clean out the stables — again.
There is a better way, a way open to us now, this legislative session, here in Washington. It is called public financing of campaigns. You take away big-money influence, give candidates their fundraising time and energy back, their independence, and you attract to races talented people who are neither independently wealthy nor dependently connected — all by putting into place carefully written, proven laws that pay for campaigns, up to a specified amount, out of public funds, only after a candidate has proven he or she can attract a specific number of small contributors and, critically, has signed an agreement not to take private contributions. Maine and Arizona already have such systems in place, and they work!
Washington Public Campaigns (WPC) is fighting to bring clean elections here. WPC, together with a wide-ranging coalition of groups and office holders, is advocating for three complementary public-financing bills in the legislature: for judicial races— endorsed by Gov. Gregoire, after heavy-handed special-interest funding in the last elections; for local races; and for all statewide races. Find out more about Washington Public Campaigns: visit www.washclean.org or call 206-463-2812. Take back your elections! Make them clean elections!
By WILLIAM LOGAN ELDER, Contributing Writer
William Logan Elder is writer living in Seattle, and a member of Washington Public Campaigns, a statewide organization working for public financing of election campaigns at all levels.
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/28/feb-28-2007-entire-issue