Public Office at Auction

May 04, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES — A fellow named Richard Fisher, identified as an ''investor,'' won the Democratic nomination for U.S. senator in Texas the other day. A former adviser to Ross Perot, Mr. Fisher may or may not be a Democrat, depending on whom you ask, but he is a model of the new, rich American politician. Whatever he actually believes, he stood on an appealing platform, piles of his own money -- $3.5 million of it.

Another self-financed Texas statesman, Michael Huffington, moved to Santa Barbara two years ago and bought a congressional seat for $5 million; he is now in the process of putting up $10 million or $20 million to try to buy the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein. Ms. Feinstein spent close to $10 million of her own (or her husband Richard Blum's) money for the seat and in a race two years earlier for governor.

That's the American way since the Supreme Court ruled that spending your own money in politics is a form of ''free'' speech.

There must be a better way. Why waste all that money and time and the energy of paid ''volunteers'' in politics? All that campaigning just tires out candidates and makes the rest of us mad at them. Why not just have them submit sealed bids? High bidder gets the job and an ''honorable'' before his or her name.

Governments, local, state and federal, could save the cost of elections; newspapers and television stations could get on with the business of sports, sex, violence, self-help and lifestyle features.

(If some jurisdictions insisted on continuing to hold elections, the voters interested enough to come out could be given the responsibility for distribution of the high bid -- earmarking funds for tax or deficit reduction, more Patriot missiles or police, schools or roads, AIDS or Alzheimer's research -- or higher salaries for politicians.)

The old election system has broken down, reduced to money-raisingcontests. Mr. Huffington, a Republican whose money comes from his father's oil business back in Texas, says he will spend whatever is necessary in both the June primary election and the November contest against Senator Feinstein. State Sen. Tom Hayden, whose money comes from his divorce settlement with Jane Fonda, is running in the Democratic gubernatorial primary against state treasurer Kathleen Brown and state insurance commissioner John Garamendi. Ms. Brown, the primary favorite, is a formidable fund-raiser who will probably be in the double-digit millions. The Republican governor, Pete Wilson, will also have whatever it takes to win.

The press here, appropriately, already covers the elections as high-bidder contests. The Los Angeles Times ran stories on where Mr. Garamendi gets his money, listing loans and donations from companies and individuals, including developers, garment manufacturers, nursing-home builders, and even a Texas oilman and billionaire Robert M. Bass.

The Los Angeles Daily News went after Ms. Brown, listing contributions from her old law firm, O'Melveny and Myers. That story, if you believe the worst, was an accounting of how little money it takes to leverage political action. The paper reported that Ms. Brown received $29,100 over four years from the firm's political-action committee. And, over that period, O'Melveny and Myers, which had received no business from the state treasurer's office in the three years before Ms. Brown's 1990 election, handled $8.5 billion in bond issues after that, generating at least $250,000 in fees.

It's all totally legal, and everybody does it. That's the point; the political system is corrupted by the need for gigantic amounts of campaign money. We should cut out all the middlemen and just let those folks buy the jobs they want so badly.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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