By Louis Black, Fri., Dec. 12, 1997
Please remember that I wrote a personal editorial attacking this reform measure. I was listening with bias, but it was still pretty astonishing.
It would seem to me that the impetus behind any campaign finance reform would be to purify the dialogue. The argument would be that big money manipulates and distorts the democratic process by hiding its agenda and trying to trick the voters. Yet here on the radio were two of the principals of the campaign acting like nothing so much as political flacks, engaging in the very behavior they claimed to abhor. When they were asked if there was any opposition to the proposition, they replied that the Austin American-Statesman had come out against it, but that was only because the paper didn't want to lose the advertising dollars.
Cole pointed out that by law, media has to sell candidates advertising at their lowest published rate, which at most media outlets is so close to the break-even point that his radio station won't even take political ads. So it was clearly silly to suggest that the Statesman's main opposition was its own income; rather, the paper had stated some intelligent and reasonable objections to the proposed reform.
Indeed, there were other serious reservations about the proposition, many of which the Chronicle had printed. Curtis and Nofziger knew this. Curtis even cited a letter she had written to the Chronicle, published in the same issue as our editorial board's split vote over the proposition -- offering arguments both against and in favor of the amendment. But this pair wanted to win; they didn't really care about informing the voters. Maybe they didn't trust the voters, maybe they were scared that if they said "the Chronicle had objections" or "here were the Statesman's reasoned positions," the voters might not vote the way Nofziger and Curtis wanted them to. And what was most embarrassing about this lack of trust was that it was obvious, given the national mood, that regardless of what anyone said, this measure was going to win overwhelmingly.
Money polluting politics is not the real issue; the loss of intelligent and honest political discussion is. Wisely, we do not believe most politicians, we don't trust campaigns, and we are suspicious of political ads. Yet here, two leaders of a legitimate people's movement were deliberately distorting the issues as much as any crass politician. Their point wasn't to engage voters in a dialogue over what they wanted -- their goal was to win. Allred pointed this out as Curtis went on listing her political enemies, noting that he hadn't heard her say how this would help voters or improve the process, but only how it would punish the impudent, those being defined as people with whom Curtis disagreed.
Read Audrey Duff's piece in this issue on Linda Curtis. It is much fairer and more understanding than I would be. Curtis is not driven by any ideology; instead, she is driven by the classic politicians' disease of needing to beat the other guy. She shows no interest in honest dialogue, and little concern for the actual difficulties of governing in a democratic society. She does show a passion for going after the establishment just to show it that she, Linda Curtis, doesn't give a shit for authority.
Curtis was involved in the campaign over the baseball stadium. This was a controversial issue. Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro and I supported the stadium (though the Chronicle editorial board split on the issue and our political writers were mostly against it). No matter how you felt about the stadium, it was obvious that the council mishandled the situation by declaring it an emergency and trying to rush it through without a vote. It also seemed obvious, from the beginning, that the stadium proposal was going to lose.
Priorities First!, the group opposing the stadium, founded and co-chaired by Curtis, took $40,000 for its campaign from a developer who wanted to defeat it, simply because he wanted to build his own stadium and bring a team to town. This was another people's movement. Yet Curtis' group took a staggering amount of money from someone with a vested interest in defeating the stadium. This was legal. It was also, arguably, ethical; they weren't changing or distorting their beliefs because of money. They were being vastly outspent by the pro-stadium forces and this money just coincided with their beliefs. But -- and this is the problem -- they didn't acknowledge from where the money had come. When the issue was first raised, they panicked. They didn't want the voters to know where the money was coming from. Again, perhaps, they just didn't trust them.
Curtis' response to being accused of the very kind of dirty campaign financing she opposes was to attack her accusers. In interviews, she says that at the moment her group was accused she decided, okay, you want to talk about dirty money, than let's have campaign finance reform for everyone. Yet it is worth noting that the recently passed campaign finance reform includes a fairly narrow loophole exempting groups like Priorities First! from its effects. Thus, even with this campaign finance reform proposition, it would be legal for Curtis' group to get its $40,000. But the proposition will hinder the fundraising efforts of councilmembers, two of whom were very critical of Curtis' group for taking the money.
And now Curtis, the anti-authoritarian people's hero, cozies up to the big money again in her current anti-annexation efforts. She is supporting the affluent areas' charge against the city and against fulfilling, in some of the cases, their legal obligations. But because she is pure, perhaps the only pure person in Texas politics, it does not matter who her bedfellows are. The consequences of her causes also don't really matter, be it finance reform that leaves big money in a better position than ever, or de-annexation efforts that are against the city's best long-term interests. What matters is Curtis getting her enemies, now notably Kirk Watson.
At a time when this city needs to pull together for its future, Curtis thrives on conflict. She claims to be part of the cure for what ails us politically. She is, instead, very much part of the disease that infects the system.