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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Following the money ... and the logic

Posted By on Tue, Oct 20, 2009 at 10:33 AM

Before I get into the meat of this post -- a back-and-forth over campaign promises in the mayoral race, and the broader issue of what "campaign finance reform" means -- a bit of housecleaning:

Early this morning, we got word that Dok Harris has been endorsed by NOW, the women's group. Add that to his endorsement by the LGBT advocates at the Gertrude Stein Political Club

Now for something far more long-winded. In the wake of Saturday's mayoral debate, the campaign of Dok Harris traded dueling press releases with Kevin Acklin's crew. The issue: whether Harris has lived up to his self-imposed limits on campaign contributions.

Harris' Web site pledges to "voluntarily adhere to strict campaign contribution limits. I will limit an individual's total contributions to $2,400, and I will limit a household's total to $4,800." During the debate, though, Acklin challenged him on that claim, saying that he'd violated his self-imposed rule numerous times. Harris conceded that "maybe one check" exceded his limits, but said otherwise he'd followed his own guidelines.

Acklin's camp later sent out a "fact-check" e-mail which said the following:

A quick look at his 30-Day Post-Primary Campaign Finance Report proves that Mr. Harris has, indeed, failed to abide by his own rules:

• 1 donor from New Jersey gave $5,000, which is more than twice his self-imposed limit.  

• 5 donors each gave $4,800, which is twice his self-imposed limit.

• 2 of those donors, Raymond and Roseann Park of 93 Spanish Gate Drive in Las Vegas, Nevada, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a single household.

• 2 more of those donors, Dan and Elaine Park of 3 Way Hollow Road in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, gave $4,800 each. Each of their donations is twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for individuals; their combined donations are twice Mr. Harris’ self-imposed limit for a household.
 

I've verified that all of these donations were made. But as the Harris campaign has previously explained, when Harris set these limits, he did so per election. He's counting the May primary as a separate election -- even though, as an independent candidate, he didn't run in the primary at all.

Now on the one hand, this might strike you as a bit slippery. When Harris' Web site says "I'm limiting contributions to $2,400," you don't expect to see contributions larger than that. And it's not like there's fine print on his Web site, explaining that you could make the maximum contribution twice.  

On the other hand, the Harris campaign has pledged to me that the $2,400/$4,800 limit will apply to all contributions made since the primary, and continuing up to Election Day. Assuming they hold to that promise, the worst you could say is they've "grandfathered in" a small number of (admittedly large) donations made early in the campaign.

But something else crops up when you look at Harris' June finance report-- which is that Harris is getting massive amounts of money from outside the city and, quite frequently, outside the state. By my count, as of June, at least 75 cents of every dollar in the Harris campaign coffers was raised from a municipality beyond the city limits. 

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Acklin and Ravenstahl have receieved out-of-state backing too. Harris' percentage is much larger, that but that's no suprise: His father is a national celebrity, and Harris has traveled about for school and work as well. Maybe it's a little creepy to think of "outsiders" buying elections. But hey -- one could argue that out-of-town contributors should worry us less. After all, faraway contributors aren't trying to get local tax breaks.

But Harris isn't just imposing limits on himself. He's faulting his rivals for not adopting them too. In a press release of his own Friday night, Harris "urge[d] the other candidates to join me in finance limits." He then asserted they wouldn't do so because "they don't want to handicap their efforts." 

True enough. But the worst you can say about that is ... they aren't stupid. Adopting Harris' limits would, arguably, play directly into Harris' own inherent fundraising advantage.

Harris, clearly, has access to a much broader base of well-heeled donors than, say, Acklin does. And because that base is broad, it doesn't have to be deep. If I've got 10 friends with $1,000 each to burn, and you've got one VERY close friend with $10,000, guess who's hurt more by limiting contributions to four-digit sums? 

And indeed, through June, Harris had outraised Acklin by nearly two-to-one. So I'm guessing its easier for Harris to corral four contributions of $2,400 than it is for Acklin to get one gift of $9,600. 

Of course, that's just too bad for Acklin. And please understand: I'm not faulting Harris for anything, or trying to say he's being other than shrewd. I'll bet some of those out-of-towners could give him $10,000 if he asked. Instead, he chose to hobble himself. So let's give Harris credit where it's due -- both for the savvy and the prinicple.   

Outside of this particular mayor's race, though, this points up a distinction to be made when we talk about "campaign-finance reform."

Generally, reform efforts have focused on limiting the size of the individual contributions, rather than the total amount of money raked in. In other words, we limit the amount an individual can give to candidates, not the amount a candidate can spend. Some other countries do have such limits, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional in its landmark 1976 case, Buckley v. Valeo.

The lesson here is this: Current finance-reform rules are all about creating a level field for campaign contributors -- not for the candidates themselves. To do that, you'd have to set up a hard ceiling, or publicly finance campaigns completely. (Or do both at once: The Buckley decision did permit spending limits on Presidential candidates, if they accepted public financing for their campaigns.)

Why is any of this important? In part because next year, the city will have a binding limit on campaign contributions.  That's useful, even vital. But at best, those reforms will help reduce any one contributor's influence. That's not the same as limiting the influence of money as a whole.

The upshot: Despite those limits, there's every chance that, four years from now, Luke Ravenstahl will look every bit as invincible -- and have a war chest every bit as large -- as he does today.

Limiting contibution size is a good step. But there's a long way to go before we have a democracy free of the influence of money. 

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