From the Crow's Nest / Ed Chrostowski
Primary importance of campaign funds
Published 1:14 pm, Thursday, September 2, 2010
There can be no doubt that money played a key role, albeit one sometimes a bit conflicted, in Connecticut's political hijinks earlier this month.
Campaign cash (Tom Foley) trumped experience (Mike Fedele) in the Republican primary for the gubernatorial nomination and did the same for Linda McMahon over Rob Simmons and Peter Schiff for the U.S. Senate candidacy.
Over on the Democratic side of the aisle, however, experience (Dannel Malloy) won the day over a fat bankroll (Ned Lamont) in the nod for governor while Dick Blumenthal sailed through unchallenged for a Senate bid.
The records speak volumes. After enriching the campaign coffers of George W. Bush, Foley was appointed ambassador to Ireland. That seemed to be the extent of his government experience while Fedele's 20 years of it includes elected posts in city and state legislatures before his four-year hitch as lieutenant governor.
Malloy was mayor of Stamford for 14 years. Lamont is a three-time loser in state elections. McMahon, former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, was an appointed member of the State Board of Education for a short time and Simmons, a Vietnam veteran and former CIA agent, was in Congress for 10 years.
McMahon, Lamont and Foley are Greenwich gazillionaires and funded their campaigns themselves. Malloy, Simmons, Schiff and Fedele relied on a public financing system in use for the first time in state-wide balloting.
But that's not the whole story behind the impact of money on the August primaries. There is, for example, Foley's efforts to prevent Fedele from getting state money. Although his court challenge was unsuccessful, it did delay Fedele's finances and thus all but halted his campaign for 10 days. On primary day, when more than 125,000 Republicans voted, Fedele lost by 3,000 votes. Could 10 more days of financed campaigning have made a difference?
Meanwhile, McMahon spent about $20 million on her campaign and said she'd spend $30 million more. That was enough to intimidate Simmons. Right off the bat, he suspended his campaign and didn't reactivate it until much too late.
Malloy, on the other hand, rolled to a landslide victory. And that prompted some doubts about how important money is after all. In households across the state, those glossy mailers made daily trips directly from mailboxes to trash bins. Among them was the multi-page full-color McMahon pamphlet that rivaled an LL Bean catalogue. Likewise, with caller ID and answering machines enabling people to screen their telephone calls, many of the incessant political "robo calls" went unheard. Still, the candidates persisted. After all, if a hundred shots are fired, at least one is bound to hit a target.
The real culprit is the level of political spending. The self-funded campaigns of wealthy candidates have jacked up the ante, pushing state grants to less-monied candidates ever upward.
Critics of the public financing system find it incongruous, if not unconstitutional, for a financially-strapped state to be diverting millions of dollars to the coffers of people running for office. Defenders of the system insist that without it only the wealthy would be able to seek election and they point to how it has enabled Malloy and Fedele to conduct credible campaigns.
Ideally, the solution would seem to be in limiting the money, no matter the source, that could be spent in campaigns for various offices. Perhaps financial constraints would prompt campaigners to focus on issues instead of hemorrhaging dollars on negativity. But that, of course, would be too much to hope for, given the tenor of today's politics.
So, spending curbs would bring few blessings and would be neither practical nor enforceable. Most likely, they would open all kinds of loopholes and pose irresistible temptations for unethical, if not corrupt, practices. Doubtlessly, they also would be declared an unconstitutional infringement on the right to free speech as other limitations on political campaigning already have been. Limitations also might deprive the electorate of campaigns that might just be enlightening once in a while.
Now one more big test looms for current systems of financing political campaign. In November, self-funded Foley will face publicly-funded Malloy for governor. As ever, even perfectly designed systems will rely on integrity of the candidates and discernment of the electorate.