Special-Interest Politics

July 26, 1994

It's election season, and everyone wants candidates to talk about the issues. That includes special-interest groups.

This year, every organization from the Maryland Diabetes Association to the Maryland Trial Lawyers Association is bombarding politicians with questionnaires designed to pin them down on matters near and dear to their hearts.

These surveys make candidates uneasy. In Anne Arundel County, District 32 state Senate candidate Ed Middlebrooks says that's because many of them seek firm "yes" or "no" answers to complex issues, leaving no room for a middle ground or an open mind. "They're not so much asking for your position as trying to box you in," he says. "I'm not interested in being boxed in . . . before I get [to Annapolis]."

The assumption underlying such complaints is that special-interest groups are bad, that they're composed of self-serving types whose concerns are far removed from those of ordinary folks.

In fact, they represent a lot of ordinary people -- teachers, union workers, police officers -- who have as much a right to identify candidates who support their agenda as anybody else.

As a rule, candidates should be judged on the sum total of their philosophy and character, not on whether they believe, say, that police chiefs should be bound to follow the recommendations of disciplinary hearing boards. But if members of a police union want to find candidates who feel that way, that is their privilege.

What candidates don't want to admit is that special interests exert undue influence only when the candidates themselves let these groups do so. Special interests can only "buy" support if a candidate is willing to be bought.

Candidates should deal with special-interest questionnaires the same way they should handle queries from anyone: honestly. If they believe fetal tissue shouldn't be used in research, there's no reason they shouldn't enjoy a pro-life group's support. If not, then say so. If they want more information from both sides, then say that; the survey may only ask for "yes" or "no," but that doesn't stop anyone writing something different in the margin.

Those who do provide firm answers and later change their minds shouldn't worry about being "boxed in." Reasonable people will buy a good explanation. And elected leaders of integrity and courage won't care if a special interest group doesn't understand.

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