Reward good politicians, punish the bad
By Bob Hall
Democracy North Carolina
When a politician cheats or steals, the press loves to play “gotcha” and the public is outraged. But what if the rules of the campaign system invite a candidate to cheat and lie in order to win election?
Will the media and public demand that the system change? Will they praise the politician who acts ethically and still wins? Why don’t politicians such as House Speaker Joe Hackney or state Representative Rick Glazier get more kudos for their leadership on ethics and efforts to reform the campaign finance system? It’s easy to criticize, but so much harder to take responsibility for fixing the problem.
Earlier this year, The News & Observer identified a number of travel-related donations the Mike Easley Committee failed to report and the State Board of Elections began investigating the Committee. In July, Democracy North Carolina provided additional information and urged the State Board of Elections to investigate if the NC Democratic Party was “being used by a candidate as a conduit to launder earmarked donations that would be illegal if they were given directly to that candidate.”
We acted because cheating in politics harms voters and the good candidates who abide by the law.
Last month, the State Board of Elections found that earmarking had occurred. By a unanimous vote, the Board ordered the Democratic Party to forfeit the $9,000 involved in two earmarked donations and, more importantly, sent a message that it is illegal for a candidate to use a political party to conduit a donor’s funds back to the candidate’s campaign, particularly when the donor, candidate and party conspire together to evade the normal contribution limits for a candidate.
The Board took a cautious approach in reaching its decision. Memos, detailed strategy plans, emails, ledger sheets, and other documents revealed that a “Governor’s Fund” had been set up within the Democratic Party to receive and spend money raised for the Mike Easley campaign, but most witnesses could not recall or simply denied any earmarking occurred. The Board focused its penalty on two donors who admitted they knew their checks to the party were really for the Easley campaign.
The Board also voted to fine the Easley Committee $100,000 and refer Mike Easley “and others” who testified to the district attorney. It’s a sad day when evidence justifies referring a governor for criminal investigation, but it’s in the best interest of the public and of the thousands of candidates who are acting properly for the State Board to make it clear that no one is above the law. In another unanimous vote, the Board recommended that the General Assembly amend state law to require a candidate to pay election-law fines if the candidate’s campaign committee is broke. Candidates should be held responsible for their campaign’s conduct.
The Board’s decisions highlight the need to reward the good politician as well as punish the bad:
– The public and all candidates need the protection of strong laws, fairly enforced, to weed out the cheaters and hold everyone accountable. But no set of regulations can prevent immoral candidates and their consultants from using loopholes to channel large amounts of private money into a campaign. More regulation alone won’t produce better public officials.
– We need more candidates with the personal moral strength to withstand the temptations and pressures of raising large amounts of private money for their campaigns. As the costs climb and the campaign’s consultants devise new methods to skirt the law, fewer candidates can hold on to their core values. How can we help them?
– We need to provide honorable candidates with an alternative campaign system that helps them stay focused on how to serve the public, rather than where to find the next $4,000 or $50,000 check from a donor with a selfish agenda. The voluntary public financing program for some candidates in North Carolina and in other states provides such an alternative, because it rewards candidates who raise a qualifying number of small donations with a public grant to run their campaign under strict rules.
– We need to support good public officials and tell them we appreciate their service. We hurt ourselves by not noticing who is doing a good job or by stereotyping all politicians as corrupt. Good government requires many solid leaders and participation by all of us. Making a $20 contribution, volunteering in a campaign, and organizing a base of supporters for a leader who champions people’s real needs are all crucial for a new kind of politics in North Carolina.
– – –
Bob Hall is executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan research and advocacy center for campaign finance reform and voting rights.