The problem is the money

The stories about the 2008 election are starting already.

Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue made headlines recently with a high-dollar fund-raiser sponsored by a long list of big Democratic donors and fund-raising heavyweights. That sent a buzz through the political world, because it appears to give Perdue a head start in what has increasingly become the most important part of any campaign: lining up the people who can give and/or raise the millions of dollars a gubernatorial candidate needs in order to be competitive.

Meanwhile, the latest word on the controversy swirling around House Speaker Jim Black focuses on the role played by Meredith Norris, Black’s former staff member and political director, in a recent fund-raiser. Hosting the event was frequent Democratic donor and money raiser Fred Mills, who was recently elected to the UNC Board of Governors.

Federal authorities have subpoenaed some of Black’s financial records. And the stories about the subpoenas say the authorities had already been scrutinizing Black’s campaign-finance reports, looking at who contributed to his campaign.

A prominent columnist correctly notes that one of the problems in Raleigh these days is the lack of turnover in leadership in the General Assembly, following a constitutional change that allows the governor to serve two terms. But legislative leaders stay in power partly because of their ability to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars that are then funneled into close legislative races.

A prominent Raleigh lobbyist recently spoke of holding fund-raisers for legislators at his house — a relatively common practice. But it’s hard to believe that a lobbyist who hosts a fund-raiser for a lawmaker doesn’t enjoy special access to that legislator’s office when the General Assembly is in session.

The common denominator in all these stories is big money: how much political candidates need it, and the questions raised when they get it. This is not about breaking the law; it’s the current legal system that encourages special treatment for wealthy donors and prolific fund-raisers.

At the most basic level, it puts elected officials in an impossible position. Consider the plight of the legislator from an urban area in a competitive district, who needs as much as $250,000 to mount an effective re-election campaign.

Then imagine this legislator, during a busy day at the General Assembly, stopping by his or her office between meetings and finding 10 phone messages. Nine are from names the lawmaker doesn’t recognize; one is from a person who contributed $4,000 to the legislator’s campaign, say, or raised $25,000 for it.

The current electoral system all but requires the legislator to call the donor or fund-raiser back first and get to the other folks if and when time permits.

The cliche is that money is the mother’s milk of politics. In fact, however, it’s the toxin that contaminates the democratic process from beginning to end.

All but the most dogmatic of free-marketers seem to agree that big money in politics is a problem. Most complaints about it, though, are swiftly followed by some expression of outright helplessness — the idea that there’s no real solution.

That is patently false, and other states are proving it. Maine and Arizona now have public financing of campaigns, and North Carolina already provides it for appellate-level judicial races. The premise is simple: Public money pays for elections, freeing candidates from the need to raise large amounts from individuals and PACs and thereby feeling beholden to the donors.

Candidates qualify for public money by gathering a specified number of small donations (the number of donors depends on the office being sought). This eliminates the possibility of fringe candidates simply filing for office and collecting money. And once a candidate qualifies for public financing, he or she can concentrate on talking to voters, rather than appearing at high-dollar fund-raisers.

A bill now pending in the General Assembly would provide public financing for Council of State races (excluding those for governor and lieutenant governor). But state legislators ought to establish public financing for legislative races too. Big private money should not be allowed to continue controlling elections for public office. And these recent headlines make the reasons painfully clear.

[Veteran news reporter Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of NC Policy Watch, reports on what’s happening in the N.C. General Assemby in “The Fitzsimon File,” a daily column offered to media outlets free of charge.]

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