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How Much From Special Interests?

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The Los Angeles Times
Mar 20, 2006 - 01:00 AM

by Op-Ed Commentary: Jamie Court (FTCR)

Dump the donors

The following commentary by FTCR president, Jamie Court, was published in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, March 20, 2006:
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Tonight, Arnold Schwarzenegger is to return to the Beverly Hilton for the first time since his contrite apology to voters after the defeat of every single one of his ballot measures in last year's special election. The governor will probably be anything but contrite as he panders to donors who will pony up as much as $100,000 each to fund his reelection campaign. Schwarzenegger has said that he and his party need -- and intend to raise -- $120 million.

Schwarzenegger, touting the size of his wallet as his qualification to govern, is again misreading the voters who scorned him in November. And at least one of his opponents is making similar boasts. State Controller Steve Westly's campaign recently suggested that his only serious competitor for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, was not qualified because Angelides wasn't raising enough dough and was only a multi-millionaire, no match for Westly and his $100-million-plus personal fortune. They all sound like bull elephants in rut.

The three gubernatorial hopefuls are in their pre-Labor Day dance for dollars from big donors. When the public starts paying attention, the contenders will no doubt sing a less boastful song. Nonetheless, all three are missing an opportunity to be the first to endorse a new brand of politics that could change the game for those who come after them.

Money shouldn't be the measure of a governor. According to polls of likely voters, Schwarzenegger's steady decline in popularity last year was fueled in part by his headlong fundraising and the perception that big donors got special favors. So much for Arnold the Reforminator, pledging to rule without money from the special interests.

The way out of the money trap -- for all state elected officials -- should be in the form of a "Clean Money Elections" initiative for the November ballot, backed by the California Nurses Association, the group that made Schwarzenegger regret boasting that he "kicked their butts." Public financing of elections is the best hope for finding candidates who measure themselves by the quality of their ideas and capability to govern, not the size of their wallets. No candidate for governor has endorsed the nurses' plan, but there's still time.

The initiative would let state politicians voluntarily receive public funds to run for election, rather than put themselves up for sale to lobbyists and the wealthiest contributors. The public cost of elections would be financed through a 0.02% increase in the corporate tax rate. It also would limit corporate contributions to the initiative process.

In Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, this type of public financing is already diversifying the spectrum of candidates and cutting special-interest influence in elections. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano explained the benefits of a publicly financed election system: "I could spend my time talking to voters, not with contributors. We were able to campaign in a fundamentally different way." She also said that "lobbyists were not swarming around me" for a dividend on a campaign contribution.

In politics you get what you pay for. And when big industries and millionaires gave Schwarzenegger $76 million, they bought their kind of government. When interest groups spend more than $350 million to elect state candidates -- as they did during the 2002-2004 election cycle -- they get politics as usual. Until the public pays for elections, the public will never truly be represented and citizens' needs will not be met.

The fact that politicians collect so much money to shape their image is, in fact, a stunning acknowledgement of their own failure. Take Schwarzenegger. If he had not bungled his first term, he wouldn't need $120 million to change the public's image of him. Gray Davis didn't have a personal fortune, but he gained office through prodigious pandering to special interests, then disgraced his post through it. Schwarzenegger was worth hundred of millions, but he did the same thing.

Raising money should not be the arbiter of success or failure in politics. But that's just what it has become. With the public paying the bill for elections, candidates and public officials will again be able to stand for something beyond who has the most money.




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