Walking-Around Money: Games Within Games

November 21, 1993|By C. FRASER SMITH

In the movie "Casablanca," the hero, Rick, tells a police inspector he came to that city "for the waters."

There are no waters, the cop tells him.

The worldly Rick claims to have been misinformed. But we know he isn't. We also know the policeman knows he isn't. What we have here are games within games played by sophisticated characters for whom the stakes are merely life, liberty and love.

The scene is recalled, oddly enough, by news from New Jersey.

Jersey City is not Casablanca, but politics there are giving us a similar melange of truth telling and feigned shock. There is only a hint of the Humphrey Bogart irony from the characters in the Garden State Follies, and the story has almost none of his character's nobility.

The issue is not water but "walking-around money," still a commonplace of Baltimore politics, though not nearly so robust as it once was. The practice of paying what one newspaper called Election Day stipends has been observed in many cities.

This time, though, the money may have been used to suppress the vote, to bank the raging fires of democracy, in an election for governor. Money is a legal stimulant in New Jersey elections -- and in Maryland, too, if not paid on Election Day -- but using it to keep people at home watching TV was regarded by some as scandalous.

We learn of all this, not from digging reporters, but from the horse's mouth, from Ed Rollins, a veteran political campaign manager. Far more astonishing than the news itself is the bearer of the news. And in that curious aspect of the story may lie its real significance.

Having helped rookie Republican Christine Todd Whitman defeat the Democratic incumbent Jim Florio, Mr. Rollins repaired to home precincts in Washington, D.C., there to accept accolades and to engage in extraordinary truth-telling (if truth this was.)

Reporters went eagerly to hear the post-mortems. They turned out to be pre-mortems as well. His comments may have ended his political consulting career.

Mrs. Whitman's campaign had lavished some $500,000 in contributions on churches thought to be potent promoters of Democrats, Mr. Rollins said. The money was variously characterized as charitable gifts or walking-around money -- or, in this case, sitting-around money. So far, no one has documented that such a prodigious sum was spent. Reports by the campaign indicate ex- penditures of less than $60,000 in "street money."

Mr. Rollins's revelation was the more sensational because he said the money had been given to black ministers, a class of Americans with a proud record of victory in the struggle for voting rights. For such men to be dissuading participation for money was perverse, sacrilegious, if true.

"We went into the black churches and basically said to ministers who had endorsed Florio: 'Do you have a special project that needs financing? We see you already endorsed Florio. That's fine, but don't get up in the Sunday pulpit and preach. . . . Don't get up there and say it's your moral obligation to vote on Tuesday, to vote for Jim Florio,' " Mr. Rollins said.

Here we had an image of cigar-chomping pols dropping plain envelopes in the collection plate.

And, here was red meat, prime cuts of it, for the national press corps. Sessions with political professionals are often non-stories, grist for later work, background for the people who want to know what's really happening. Mr. Rollins is known for sensational words, though.

When Ms. Whitman learned of her guru's comments, she reacted with real horror: Rick without the wink and the nod. No such thing had happened, she said. Unfortunately for her, two other members of her campaign-- one, her brother -- had said similar things about how victory had been won.

Mr. Rollins now finds himself in the middle of a grotesque media circus, apologizing, appearing last week before grand juries convened to investigate.

The GOP in Maryland and elsewhere may find itself under a cloud as a result. And its occasional campaigns to win black members could be undermined.

During the recent redistricting wars, when election districts were re-configured to reflect changes in population and to meet constitutional requirements, Republicans joined with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to be sure that the process gave black voters as much power as their numbers demand.

Few thought that the GOP's interests were designed to empower black voters. Instead, the party saw that drawing more districts where blacks could be elected diluted Democratic power.

The idea that the NAACP alliance was self-serving gets support from the walkaround controversy, one in which Republicans appear to be stifling black power. Perhaps, it was just another case of trying to have it both ways.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.