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Lists of Political Contributions Can Reveal Much About Candidates

Q&A: CAMPAIGN DONATIONS

November 04, 2005|William Nottingham | Times Staff Writer

By the time voters decide the eight initiatives on Tuesday's special election ballot, political contributions for and against are expected to surpass $225 million.

Can all that money be chalked up to contributors seeking a quid pro quo, or is it merely the cost of democracy in a geographically vast state with 35 million people?

It's probably a little of both, according to Edwin Bender, executive director of the Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based in Helena, Mont. Bender fielded a series of questions earlier this week.

Question: Is it true George Washington was one of the nation's first campaign spending miscreants because he passed out rum, wine, beer and cider to the 391 voters in his Virginia legislative district?

Answer: I don't know about Washington. But I do know that from the beginning of time, politically speaking, politicians have had to gather support, and that was often done through more informal means, such as community gatherings with free food and raffles.

Q: So if it's part of the political routine, how important is it for voters to pay attention to fundraising?

A: Voters should be aware of what's going on in a candidate's fundraising campaigns for two major reasons: In this age of instant polling, massaged messages and spin-doctored responses, campaign lists are some of the most transparent information available about who supports a candidate and how candidates might think about spending taxpayer money. For example, we see many candidates raising more than 20% of their campaign cash from contributions under the reporting threshold. These contributions usually represent the folks sending in $10, $50 or $100. This is the "good" money, an indication that a candidate has been knocking on doors and talking at community gatherings about issues.

Q: And the second reason has to do with "bad" money?

A: If voters see that a candidate raised only 5% from small donors, that's an indication that the candidate is going for big money, which is often from so-called special interests that have campaign giving strategies. Looking at who is giving and patterns of giving by a specific company or industry, such as real estate, banking or contractors, can give voters a clue about whom the candidate will turn to for information when a special-interest bill comes before them.

Q: Big contributors are drawn to big issues, right?

A: Candidates are typically elected on a handful of issues, but they make hundreds or thousands of decisions about policy and the spending of taxpayer money. The influence of the money is often seen at the minutest level of detail. Our tax codes are filled with the minutiae that directly benefit major campaign contributors and affect taxpayers' bottom lines.

The main point is that government is big business. And many campaign contributors want a piece of the action. Whether via a tax break or an eased regulation, the people who give a lot of money want something in return.

Q: During Watergate, campaign cash came in attache cases and brown paper bags. But isn't the whole process, as you noted, "transparent" now, with contributions accessible through the Internet and tough regulations in place?

A: Unfortunately, no. Although many states passed campaign-reform legislation in the wake of Watergate, it was decades before it was anything more than a paper shuffle, with disclosure reports being filed away in a dusty corner and only being looked at by political insiders. The Internet has changed that a great deal. When we began this work more than 13 years ago as a regional organization, only a handful of states offered any information in a computerized form. Now, on www.followthemoney.org, you can see all the money raised by state-level candidates, party committees and, soon, ballot measure committees. The Center for Responsive Politics, www.opensecrets.org, does the same work at the federal level.

And enforcement is the exception, not the norm, because any time a disclosure agency does take action, they face retribution come budget time in the next legislative session. Washington state and Alaska are the best examples of this: Washington's Public Disclosure Commission lost a director because of what she saw as political retribution. And in Alaska, where a Republican gubernatorial candidate ran afoul of the law and was disowned by his own party, the correct-acting disclosure office faced retribution from the Alaska Legislature.

Fragmented reporting systems and poor funding are two of the obstacles to comprehensive governmental disclosure.

Q: Somebody in Congress or the Legislature always seems to be pushing to limit campaign spending, yet the pots of political money get bigger every year -- or is that a misimpression?

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