$urvival of the Richest
Everybody knows that American politics is driven by money. What you may not know is that across the country people just like you disgusted, turned off by business as usual are fighting back.
And winning. Can it happen in South Carolina? You decide.
BY BECCI ROBBINS
Even with so many people getting screwed, campaign finance reform is not a sexy topic.
You may think, as I once did, that it has nothing to do with you.
Well, think again. Because whether you give a rip or not, tune out or don't, the business of politics who plays, who wins, and why touches you where you live. While it may be corporate and special-interest donors financing elections, it's ordinary people you and me who pay the highest price.
Nobody knows better than we do in South Carolina that politics is driven by money. We remember Lost Trust, the vote-buying scandal in the early '90s that led to the conviction of 27 legislators, lobbyists and public officials. Those grainy images of money changing hands in creepy motel rooms, shown over and over on the nightly news, solidified our collective cynicism.
After Lost Trust, the state's ethics laws were strengthened in an effort to un-cozy the relationship between lobbyists and politicians. As a result, South Carolina was able to claim some of the toughest ethics laws in the country.
It was a step in the right direction. But did it go far enough? Ask David Beasley.
In 1998, the gambling industry bankrolled his opponent Jim Hodges' successful bid for the governor's seat. In fact, donors with a dog in the video poker fight contributed more to gubernatorial candidates than the total raised from all sectors by many other statewide candidates. (See charts)
It was a stunning auction, the governor's race of 1998, but not so different, really, from elections in the past. The numbers and players changed, but the game was the same. While video poker "barons" (as the press grew fond of calling them) poured money into the last election, they merely were joining the developers, manufacturers and insurance companies already in the business of greasing palms and currying political favor.
Small wonder most of us don't vote. We aren't apathetic; we're disgusted.
The bad news is that you are right to be cynical.
The good news is that things have gotten so bad that the natives are getting restless, and are starting to fight back. In some cases, they're winning.
A quiet, slow-motion revolution is taking root across the country. But chances are you have heard little or nothing about it, because among those who stand to lose if reformers get their way is the news media. Much of the money pumping through American politics benefits the print and broadcasting media, who profit handsomely from campaign advertising.
According to the October 2000 issue of Harper's, more than half of the money being spent in this election cycle is going to advertising. "The well-known delegates from the national press corps work for the same corporations (Viacom, Time Warner, Disney, etc.) that were supplying the smoked salmon and the limousines, and the better-informed members of the entourage knew that of the several billion dollars allocated to the current election season, 60 percent of the appropriation was being spent for print and television advertising," wrote Lewis H. Lapham in a story about this fall's political conventions.
But while the mainstream media has been slow, late or absent in reporting on it, from New Mexico to New York there is a growing grassroots movement to get money out of politics. And it isn't just a Yankee thing. In neighboring Georgia and North Carolina, grassroots activists are waging sophisticated and broad-based campaigns to change the way they pay for elections.
Their message is resonating with voters who think American-brand democracy is not living up to its promise, but that it can.
What they are pushing for is publicly financed, or what they call "clean elections." They say it is the only campaign finance reform that limits the soaring cost of political campaigns and the influence that private money has on public policy.
While there are a variety of clean election reform measures in the works across the country and in Congress, the basic model allows candidates to run their campaigns entirely with money from a public fund. To qualify, candidates must show community support by collecting a threshold number of small donations and signatures. In return, they agree to abide by spending limits and to forgo private contributions. Because it is voluntary, the system is constitutional. (For more on how public financing works, see Clean Money 101).
Estimates of the cost to taxpayers is less than $7 for state elections and $10 for federal elections. Compared to the billions of dollars taxpayers wind up paying for special-interest favors, reformers argue this is a bargain.
The idea of publicly financed elections appeals to government reform activist William J. Kitchen, who lives in Greer. He said, "Since [politicians] are, and have always been, a pack of bought and paid-for whores, I want them to become my bought and paid-for whores."
Fixing a broken system
Clean elections require a fundamental shift in the way we finance political campaigns, but voters have shown they support serious change. In Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts, they have passed ballot initiatives establishing publicly financed elections. A similar bill passed in Vermont with bipartisan support in the legislature.
These victories, in some cases a decade in the making, have mapped a way for reformers in other states. Measures to establish clean elections have been introduced in more than half of state legislatures and in a growing number of localities.
Here in South Carolina, we would do well to pay attention. Consider that in the 1998 statewide elections, the candidates who raised the most money won 92 percent of the races. Eighty-nine percent of winners were incumbents. Only 4.5 percent of winning candidates did not have the advantage of incumbency, the most money, or both.
Those statistics mirror trends across the nation. They fuel a growing malaise. Voting rates are down. Public mistrust of government is deepening. Just listen to a few of your neighbors:
"Our representatives' offices are nothing less than brothels," said Steven Beltram of Spartanburg. "The rich, trans-national, multibillion-dollar corporations come in the door with their cash, and the representatives quickly hit their knees."
Longtime Columbia environmental activist Leslie Minerd said, "Everyone should spend one day up in the lobby of the State House. It's a real eye opener. There you will find all the well-heeled lobbyists, the people who really control this state. It's a depressing sight, and a sad realization that this isn't a democracy. The voice of the people does not hold a candle to the big pockets of those men in suits and I mean nice suits."
Rock Hill resident Carolyn Ballard said, "Corporations and moneyed interests have taken over virtually all aspects of life. As a result, the general population has become disempowered, helpless to change this mockery of democracy because they have no access to the system."
"We don't allow public safety officers or other government employees to take any inducements that might possibly affect their performance," Glenn Busbin of Inman noted, "but elected legislators and executive officers actively seek and take campaign contributions. Financial supporters gain access to these policy-making officials and influence their decisions much more than the average citizen can."
Reform or deform?
Since the last election, when Republicans got burned at their own game, South Carolina politicians are finally talking about campaign finance reform. It's a conversation that's long overdue.
Several bills were filed in the last legislative session. Getting the most attention was S. 250, which at press time sits on the governor's desk awaiting his signature. Published speculation has it that Gov. Hodges will wait to veto the bill until after the elections, in an effort to protect Democratic candidates from any political fallout.
The bill would require full disclosure in reporting campaign contributions.
Who could argue with that?
Well, John Crangle, for one.
The executive director of Common Cause of South Carolina, a government watchdog group, in a guest column in The State took the newspaper to task for its support of the bill, which he likened to "a shuffling jackass tricked up to run in the campaign finance horse race."
Crangle said the bill is flawed for several reasons:
the provision for mandatory disclosure of the soft money pumping into political parties expires in two years;
the bill invites politically motivated lawsuits; and
it ignores the ever-growing cost of campaigns and the unfair advantage incumbents enjoy in elections.
"Real reform would open up the complaint and enforcement process of the Ethics Commission and the legislative ethics committees to public scrutiny," Crangle said. "Real reform would require at least partial public financing of campaigns" and would impose limits on corporate, union and PAC contributions.
Campaign spending skyrockets
In just a decade, the cost of running for governor in South Carolina has more than quadrupled.
In 1990, Republican Gov. Carroll Campbell spent $1.9 million to win his second term against Democratic challenger Theo Mitchell, who spent $400,000.
With no incumbent in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Republican David Beasley spent $3.5 million to beat his Democratic opponent, Nick Theodore, who spent $4.4 million.
In 1998, Democrat Jim Hodges raised $4.6 million to beat Beasley, who raised $4.8 million.
The sharp rise in the cost of campaigns traps candidates in a perpetual money chase. Politicians find themselves spending more time raising money and less time tending to the business of government. It is not why most of them decided to enter public office. But it is the reason a lot of them are leaving.
States successful in passing comprehensive campaign finance reform have done so with bipartisan support of elected officials, who understand better than most how crippling big money is to good government.
Sen. John McCain, who has elevated campaign finance reform in the national debate, said, "We are the defenders of an elaborate, influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."
"It is money, money, money not ideas, not principles but money that reigns supreme in American politics," said West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Paul Simon, former U.S. Senator from Illinois, said, "Why do we have 41 million Americans without health coverage? Because they are not big campaign contributors."
In South Carolina, 46 elected officials Republicans and Democrats without any public debate or pressure, have signed statements supporting publicly financed elections. They agree that there needs to be an alternative way to run for office in this state that frees candidates from the money chase that puts voters, not donors, in charge of elections.
The gathering of support statements is part of a grassroots initiative to advocate comprehensive campaign finance reform in the Palmetto State. Led by S.C. Voters for Clean Elections, a project of the S.C. Progressive Network, the nonpartisan coalition of groups and individuals is in the process of recruiting volunteers interested in government reform.
Working in collaboration with the National Institute of Money in State Politics in Montana, the Network has just completed an audited and searchable electronic database of campaign contributions in South Carolina dating back to 1994. The database will be posted on the Network's web site so that anyone with an interest in doing so can track the links between special interest contributors, elected officials and public policy.
S.C. Voters for Clean Elections will hold a series of public meetings beginning in late November to raise awareness and support for a clean money initiative in South Carolina.
For details, call 803-808-3384 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becci Robbins is communications director for the S.C. Progressive Network and serves on the board of Democracy South, a North Carolina-based regional coalition of activists working for campaign finance reform, among other things.