McCain, Feingold seek support in Md. for campaign finance bill

Senators tell crowds public backing growing for ban on `soft money'

March 17, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

U.S. Sens. John McCain and Russell D. Feingold brought their campaign finance reform road show to Maryland yesterday with a stop at the State House and a town hall meeting before an enthusiastic crowd of supporters at St. John's College.

It was the sixth meeting the two senators have held as they've traveled across the country to build public backing of their bill to ban "soft money" - the term given to the unlimited, unregulated contributions that unions, corporations and wealthy individuals make to political parties. The Senate is scheduled to take up the measure Monday.

"We're ready to go," McCain said. "We know that we're in open waters because we've never had a chance to have a full debate.

McCain has successfully pushed for early action on his campaign reform measure over objections from the Bush administration and Republican leaders.

Americans4Reform, a bipartisan coalition of more than 40 groups, sponsored the Annapolis visit. Del. John A. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, helped organize the stop at the State House. Hurson has a bill pending in the House of Delegates to create a fund for public financing of state campaigns.

Feingold, a Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, said that unlike past years, there is "an enormous amount of support" for reforming how political contributions are handled. McCain said that politicians have become "addicted" to the money and that the fund-raising process has contributed to a deep cynicism about the political system.

"The good news is that the overwhelming majority of the American people believe we need campaign finance reform," he said. "The bad news is the majority of the American people don't believe we have the guts to do it."

Yesterday began with McCain and Feingold holding forth in the legislature's Joint Hearing Room. Afterward, Democratic and Republicans legislators alike treated the pair like rock 'n' roll stars. They lined up for pictures as Rick Lippenholz, one of the State House's official photographers, directed traffic.

The senators visited the Senate and House chambers before a stroll to St. John's. Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, characterized the McCain-Feingold bill as a David-vs.-Goliath battle.

"Anything short of a complete ban on soft money will not fix our system," he said, as he urged the crowd to lobby for the bill's passage. "Nothing happens in Washington by accident. It happens when you raise your voice."

During a news conference, McCain was asked about how the bill's possible defeat would affect his political career.

"I can't worry about that," he said. "What I'm worried about is a generation who no longer believes they are represented by their government."

Feingold and McCain had no problem winning supporters at the town hall meeting. Many were already sold on the need for campaign finance reform. They came to see their champion, whose quest for the presidency inspired young and old from across party lines.

Clare McHugh received a card in the mail inviting her to the meeting. McCain and Feingold did not have to convince her.

"Campaign finance reform has to take place for the integrity of the country," said McHugh, who lives in Burtonsville. "They say power corrupts. Well, money corrupts."

Hurson said he thought the visit helped boost his bill's prospects, even though a Senate committee killed a similar bill Thursday. Hurson said he is working to amend his bill to win approval from the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. The problem will be getting the bill through the Senate.

"As McCain has said, this is always an incremental process," Hurson said. "We've made a lot of progress this year, and we will continue to fight the good fight."

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