A ruthless tribute to big money politics

California: When a Democrat can choose his Republican opponent, something's really wrong.

March 12, 2002

OPPONENTS OF campaign finance reform should be rethinking their opposition in the aftermath of Enron and California's recent GOP primary.

In each case, campaign money wrought perverse results.

By spending $10 million on attack ads during California's Republican primary, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis dismantled the campaign of former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican.

As the more moderate GOP contender, Mr. Riordan looked like a potent challenger in moderate-to-liberal California. Mr. Davis wanted him out.

Then came an updated primer on TV's power. Mr. Riordan saw a huge opening lead evaporate. Governor Davis invited Republican voters to see Mr. Riordan as indecisive and far too liberal for the conservatives who dominate voting in Republican primaries. Newcomer William E. Simon Jr., the conservative son of a former treasury secretary, won. No one gives him a shot against Governor Davis.

But California voters were the big losers. A more engaging and useful contest of candidates and ideas died in an avalanche of cash. It was a further distortion of the campaign finance system: Party primaries ought to be the exclusive preserve of that party's faithful, at least as far as money is concerned.

Collateral damage from the Davis bombardment reached the White House, where President Bush and his advisers also thought Mr. Riordan was the best bet to beat Mr. Davis and to make California more winnable for them in the presidential election of 2004.

Mr. Riordan, it turns out, suffered a form of political payback. He had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates over the years, including former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley against conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian in the 1980s.

Payback aside, the solution is something like the "clean money, clean election" approach espoused by Common Cause/Maryland, Progressive Maryland and Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.

They propose to study the adoption of a system in which taxpayers would finance races for governor and lieutenant governor, comptroller and the General Assembly. A commission would examine systems in Maine, Arizona and elsewhere. Identical study bills moved easily out of committee in both houses and seem likely to pass. Before Enron, even a study would have faced rough sledding.

Maryland legislators know their constituents understand that Enron ran amok while the government did nothing: Company executives, who made the contributions, walked away with millions while Enron workers lost their retirement accounts.

So the impetus is there, but will election-year anxiety lead to real reform? Pessimism would be in order. The public distrusts government, and politicians use that antipathy as leverage to defeat public financing.

Both parties have been vociferous opponents. For Democrats, that's understandable. A Maryland GOP candidate in 1994 used less than a million dollars in public money to challenge and almost defeat a Democratic candidate for governor. Victory might have boosted the GOP and allowed new thinking in a state run by Democrats for more than a generation.

If people want to reduce the power of money in politics - if politicians want to protect themselves from a Davis-like attack - a public financing law should follow closely behind a study. Until that happens, we won't have real reform.

An earlier version of public financing would have cost about $10 million in Maryland - $2 per taxpayer. Seems like a bargain.

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