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Living with the limit: What kind of politics do we want for our $100?

By Mike Clark-Madison, March 21, 2003, News

I cannot tell a lie: I did not attend Marc Katz's court hearing, before U.S. Senior District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth, to consider Katz's constitutional challenge to Austin's $100 campaign contribution limit, at 8:30am on the day after the Austin Music Awards. I was doing my part to support live music. Those who did attend did their part, apparently, to keep Austin weird.

To have Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman effectively testify against the city, and then be cross-examined by the city's own litigator, is weird. To have consultant Mike Blizzard testify for the city is weird. And to have former Mayor Bruce Todd suggest that the deleterious effect of campaign cash was not a public concern when he was in office is, uh, too weird.

Then again, it's weird enough that Marc Katz, arguably the most famous person in the current mayor's race and thus the least in need of a big, media-driven campaign, would argue that he must, to be viable, spend three times as much as Will Wynn (or, more accurately, that his consultant's estimates are three times those of Wynn's consultant) and that his free-speech rights are being uniquely infringed by the $100 limit. As I've said before, Marc Katz is a perfectly credible candidate who deserves to be taken seriously. But in the case at hand, he's not the greatest poster child, and Hudspeth suggested as much in ruling against him. (Goodman has a more plausible case that the $100 limit stands between her and the mayor's chair, but as a sitting council member her options are more constrained.)

But that's all under the bridge now. What remains is the $100 limit, which, despite being reviled even by some who created it, has survived two elections and a court challenge. It's time to stop beating our heads against the wall and bemoaning the damage the limit has done -- and was intended to do -- to the conventional ways of Austin politics. What kind of politics do we want instead for our $100?

Lemons or Lemonade?

Katz argues that he must be a leader because, while everyone who's running (and some, like Goodman, who aren't) complains about the $100 limit, only he was assertive enough to do something about it. Maybe so. I suspect, though, that this is not a chorus of identical complaints. For some -- say, perhaps, Max Nofziger -- the problem is practical; the limit is simply too low. For others, the problem is philosophical, and I include myself in that crew. I could spend all the money I have to buy TV time and make speeches and knock on doors telling the world Marc Katz, or whoever, should be the mayor of Austin -- but I can only give $100 to Katz himself. I find that silly.

I know that it "has" to be that way, that the courts have ruled for decades that it's OK to limit contributions but it's not OK to limit campaign spending or self-financing or contributions given to causes and not to candidates (the part of Austin's limit system that was struck down in 1998), so this is the best we can do. But this result represents not nobility, but futility, if we, the voters, expect candidates to spend the same money in the same ways they did before the limit was adopted in 1997. And in this, the first truly contested mayor's race since then, I've heard most of the leading candidates talk, and so far act, as if this were true. They think we want the same forests of yard signs, high-gloss TV ads, and election-day high-vis. blowouts we remember from the Watson/Reynolds race and those before it, and they bemoan how hard it is to do that without $25,000 checks from lawyers and rock stars.

Except for Max Nofziger, whose base is not wealthy and whose appeal is a populist one and whose 1997 guerrilla campaign did more than anything to spawn the $100 limit. His strategy, he says, is to energize voters (and increase turnout) by taking "strong stands on the enormous issues facing the city today. Issues like transportation, the environment, the music scene, the war -- they all have motivated constituencies." Whether Nofziger can do this, or whether it will matter if he does, remains to be seen. But unlike Wynn or Katz or Brad Meltzer, he is not running a champagne campaign on a beer budget, and in his case the $100 limit starts to look like a positive constraint.

Face the Music and Dance

Which, again, it was supposed to be. Those who still advocate for the limit -- not just as the fruit of the popular will but as a good idea -- are really advocates of small-donor retail politics. To them, the interests of candidates and constituents are more closely aligned when the average voter's check is no less important than the fat cat's. Personally, I think this is a little too romantic. Such might be true if politicos were in fact a separate and segregated caste, as they are often labeled by their enemies. But in fact they come from the community and, in our case after six years, go back into the community, and their affinities and votes will reflect a larger web of transactions than just those of campaign finance.

But right now, this is all hypothetical, because so few candidates in Austin have either accepted the premises of this small-donor model or tried to create alternative models not fueled by campaign cash. Of those, the winners (like Brigid Shea) arguably triumphed in spite of, rather than because of, their self-imposed restrictions. The rest of our campaigns are like Detroit autos -- they're inefficient because of the entrenchment of the people who make them, who then turn around and blame the people who buy them. Most candidates and consultants will never think outside the (ballot) box until somebody wins a race with a campaign to which the $100 limit is a nonissue. Apparently unlike Marc Katz (or his consultants), I don't think that's impossible. end story

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