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Campaign Finance Reform's Granddaddy

Advocacy: Pending House vote embodies Fred Wertheimer's life work. But he's not done.

July 12, 2001|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The oversized cartoons on the walls of Fred Wertheimer's office have a single theme, campaign finance reform, and the same author, Herblock, the legendary Washington Post political cartoonist.

The oldest, from 1973, shows a wide-eyed lawmaker locked in embrace with the giant bag of money perched on his lap. An angry man in front of the pair holds a sign that reads: "Stand up for campaign finance reform!"

It's a call to arms that Wertheimer, 62, has heeded even longer than the drawing has existed. What began as an assignment--one of the first tasks he was given when he went to work for the public advocacy group Common Cause in 1971--became his life's work.

Now, with the fate of a landmark bill that would dramatically reduce the role of big money in U.S. politics about to be decided by the House, he seems on the verge of either a significant victory or a huge disappointment.

Not so, he insists. Win or lose, he says, his fight will be far from over.

"There are no finish lines in this area--never will be," said Wertheimer, who for the last four years has run Democracy 21, an advocacy group focused on reforming the political system. "We are dealing with human nature and the power of money on government decisions that have enormous impact both on powerful institutions and the average American."

The one concession he makes is for the possibility of a big vacation sometime soon--the one he admits he has promised for decades to his wife, Linda Wertheimer, a host of National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

"I keep telling her whenever she asks: 'As soon as the bill passes.' I've been saying that off and on for 30 years."

So where would they go?

"We'll face that when we come to it," Wertheimer said. "I don't want to get ahead of myself."

Those who have long known the Brooklyn-born Wertheimer say it is that steadiness that has kept him going on the same issue for so long. The single-day-at-a-time mentality served him well during the lean years when few lawmakers wanted to listen to anyone wanting to slow or cut off the flow of money into campaign coffers.

He recalls the difficulty he and others had early on in choosing the right words to describe what they believe is a corrupt system.

"It took us a couple of years in the 1980s to come up with two sentences to explain what 'soft money' is," he said.

Those largely unregulated contributions to political parties totaled $500 million during the 2000 campaign, and the drive to ban them is at the heart of the current debate.

Wertheimer's definition for these donations: Money that is raised outside the limits that exist for federal elections and then channeled into those federal elections to help elect federal candidates.

More simply: an evasion of the process.

"Fred has been a dogged advocate of campaign finance more than anybody else. And it must feel like Sisyphus for him to have kept pushing that rock up the hill," said Bob Neuman, a Democratic operative who worked with Wertheimer on reform efforts in the 1970s. "He has waged an honorable and decent fight; he's never called anybody bad names, never taken the low road."

Which is not to say Wertheimer has never taken politicians to task for ethical lapses. In his 24 years at Common Cause, the 250,000-member public advocacy group he headed from 1981 to 1995, Wertheimer asked for formal investigations of top government officials such as House Speaker Jim Wright and Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III.

In a Washington twist, it was another inquiry he called for that helped set in motion the legislation that now is so close to passing.

Common Cause in 1989 called for an inquiry into the "Keating Five," a group of senators, including Republican John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had accepted large contributions and other favors from Charles H. Keating Jr. Keating, head of a failed savings and loan, had asked the recipients to intercede on his behalf with federal bank regulators.

McCain, while cleared of wrongdoing, has since said the Keating probe was his most difficult political experience. Many who know him believe it was the spark that led him to become a zealous campaign finance reformer.

Wertheimer says it is the exposure McCain gave the issue during his 2000 presidential bid that dragged it front and center. And Wertheimer praises McCain and his main allies in the reform push--Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reps. Martin T. Meehan (D-Mass.) and Christopher Shays (R-Conn.)--as "genuinely heroic."

Others, however, have a different opinion, including many Republican leaders who have decried the effort as unconstitutional and a violation of free speech rights. Asked about Wertheimer, one GOP leadership aide said simply: "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

Wertheimer said he expects opposition. And he said he's been around Capitol Hill too many years for anything to surprise him, even that the House reform bill, which previously passed by wide margins, now is too close to call.

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