Minnesota incident underscores need for campaign reform


MINNEAPOLIS -- The five Democratic candidates for governor were sitting around a table at the local public radio station the other night debating. One of the debate's sponsors was the Minnesota Nurses Association. Among the candidates was the eventual winner of the party primary, state Attorney General Hubert H. "Skip" Humphrey.

At the first commercial break, the sound was turned off in the studio and the five chatted amiably, not realizing that the station was running a paid political advertisement endorsing Mr. Humphrey. It was paid for by the Minnesota Politically Involved Nurses, the political arm of a nurses' association that was a co-sponsor of the supposedly nonpartisan debate.

Seven more times in commercial breaks during the 90-minute debate, the nurses' association ads were aired for Mr. Humphrey's candidacy. Mr. Humphrey said he didn't know about the ads. At each break, the sound of the program was turned down in the studio where the candidates sat.

Later, when one of the other candidates, state Sen. Doug Johnson, learned what happened, he protested against the station and the Humphrey campaign. He called the behavior "a disgrace to the concept of a political debate being conducted in as fair and as unbiased environment as possible." While not illegal, he said, the nurses' ads were "a despicable misuse of their public trust as debate sponsors."

The actions of the Humphrey campaign, Mr. Johnson charged, "may be far more serious. While Mr. Humphrey denied hearing about the spots, his staff clearly knew and that would be a clear violation of Minnesota campaign laws. They are the kind of dirty tricks that Minnesota voters have demanded the candidates avoid."

A Johnson aide said he might ask for an investigation of whether ethics laws had been violated. A Humphrey aide accused of bragging about placement of the ads when they were aired said she had been misunderstood.

The whole business seemed just one of those things that happens, by design or unwittingly, in the last days of a hotly contested campaign. But it underscored the need for federal campaign finance reform, especially concerning the expenditures of outside groups like the nurses' association.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1976, two years after the Watergate corruption scandal, that while spending by political campaigns could be limited, individuals or groups acting independent of campaigns were free to spend whatever they chose in behalf of a candidate. Doing so, the court said, was an exercise of their First Amendment right of free speech, provided they acted in a truly independent fashion, without any contact or collusion with a campaign.

This provision has become a huge loophole through which unlimited money can flow to a candidate. Often campaigns with limited resources as a practical matter will leave an obvious campaign function undone -- running broadcast advertising, for example -- knowing or hoping that a supportive individual or group will fill the vacuum. No communication is required in such a case.

But many candidates would much rather get directly the money that is spent independently, so that they can use it in ways they deem most effective. Also, some independent expenditures are made wastefully or even in ways damaging to a campaign they are intended to help. Sharply negative ads they run, for instance, can backfire on the "favored" candidate, making his managers wish the free-wheeling helpers would desist.

In the case of the Minnesota gubernatorial primary, the nurses' ads for Mr. Humphrey drew Mr. Johnson's protest and created the potential of a backlash. As it turned out, Mr. Humphrey won handily anyway. Indeed, when Mr. Humphrey was advised at the time the ads were aired, he told reporters that they were fine as far as he was concerned. "We've been trying to get our own ads on," he said.

The running of ads favoring one candidate on a supposedly nonpartisan debate on public radio airwaves was a particularly egregious use of independent expenditures. It is an area that begs for regulation, whether such ads back one candidate or attack another outside the discipline and responsibility of an official campaign.

But until the Supreme Court rules that spending money on campaigns is not a form of free speech and can be restricted, as some constitutional lawyers are now urging, that is not going to happen.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 9/18/98

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