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Point Austin: Money and Minds

Campaign finance reform is not a zero-sum equation

By Michael King, Fri., April 20, 2012

Laura Pressley
Laura Pressley

The hoariest cliché of political commentary, memorialized forever by the film All the President's Men, is "Follow the money." Following the money is reasonable as far as it goes – the wholesale purchase of national politics currently under way by super PACs, thanks to the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, is the major political scandal of our time. But just as the court was led wildly astray by a radically simplistic libertarian nostrum ("money = speech"), so does the simplistic rejoinder ("money = corruption") misconstrue the actual political process, which requires money for the same reason we all do – to purchase what we need.

While in theory everyone understands that for candidates to communicate with voters, they need to have the means to do so (the feminist fund EMILY's List – "Early Money Is Like Yeast" – literally embodies the concept), in practice reformers dourly point at political money as the root of all evil with much the same misplaced puritanism that reflexive congressional scolds denounce "the deficit." Not all debt is the same, and hysterical opposition to using it for public investment is as dangerous as a thoughtless embrace.

The same principle applies to campaign finance – if you set out to strangle virtually all campaign contributions, you're as likely to damage the political process as if you'd paid no attention to the money at all.

No Money To Follow

Those mordant thoughts were partly inspired by the latest round of contribution and expenditure reports filed last week by the mayoral and City Council candidates. There were no great surprises in the mix, beginning with the news that the four incumbents are far in the lead on both donors and amounts. The mayoral race between Lee Leffingwell and Brigid Shea remains roughly competitive, while of the others, only Bill Spelman's Place 5 race looks uncertain – primarily because of the number of listed challengers (six), among whom only Dominic Chavez has raised enough (nearly half of Spelman's $29,000 cash on hand) to even conceive of a citywide campaign.

To those who would reflexively conclude that the incumbents have been "bought" by donors – each limited to a whopping $350 – I would ask, do you think that $29,000 is sufficient to communicate over the next month to a city of 800,000 people?

A couple of other C&E details are worth noting. Occupier John Duffy, running a half-serious campaign for Place 5, raised nothing and marked "N/A" on every page of his report – diligently circling each "A" (for "Anarchy"). And on Wednesday (in the wake of a story first reported by Mike Kanin in In Fact Daily), Place 2 candidate Laura Press­ley acknowledged (after a day of defensiveness) that she had "in error" (and potentially illegally, under state law) accepted a couple of donations from corporations. "I completely agree with returning the funds," said Pressley, "and paying whatever appropriate fine that may be assessed."

Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?

Do I think Pressley's acceptance of corporate donations – in the wake of a decadelong state political scandal on precisely this issue – is a dire sign of the candidate's corruption? Absolutely not – but I do think it's an indicator among many others that she is simply not qualified to be a council member, because she doesn't know the very first things about running for office, nor even how city government actually functions.

Unfortunately, Pressley shares that condition with most of the 10 challengers currently on the ballot, of whom only two or at most three (I'll let you guess) possess the bare minimum knowledge of city circumstances, policies, and procedures simply to qualify for the jobs they are applying for. That's based not on their particular "positions" – most commonly a knee-jerk version of unreflective libertarianism – but on their statements in campaign responses and appearances, where they repeatedly make it clear they don't know an ordinance from a hole in the wall, nor even what form of city government Aus­tinites live under. Yet a couple of allegedly responsible "activist" groups endorsed (for example) Pressley anyway, because they wanted to punish the incumbent for a handful of votes that annoyed them.

In a town that is always volubly congratulating itself for "public participation," the paucity of qualified challengers, like the dismal voting turnout, is one more sign that our local political process is in fact badly broken. Maybe geographic districts will help, although that is no magic wand – Commissioners Court is not exactly political utopia. And we certainly do not have to emulate state government's no-holds-barred approach to campaign finance (meanwhile paying effectively nothing to legislators, making those able to run utterly beholden to their financial underwriters).

More "campaign finance reforms" are now being proposed for council consideration and the charter, and those requiring more transparency and accessible information are certainly in order. But before we reflexively endorse the application of even stricter financial limits on those with both the disposable funds and the public spiritedness to support city candidates, we ought at least consider the possibility that one major problem in our now big-city politics is not too much money for campaigns – but too little.

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