A Fair Fight 

As an executive at the Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs, Jon Corzine made a wad of money. By all accounts a decent man—and a politically progressive one at that—Corzine didn’t spend his riches on Rembrandts or yachts or Tuscan villas. Instead, he decided to run for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey and forked out $60 million for campaign commercials, consultants, and direct mail pieces. Not surprisingly, he won.

Corzine isn’t a bad man. In fact, he’s smart, works hard, and plays to pretty good reviews. But no one should be able to spend $60 million of his own money to buy entrée to elected office.

Phil Bredesen—the odds-on favorite for the Democratic gubernatorial election in Tennessee, and, many would argue, the favorite for the general election too—similarly should not be able to spend whatever it takes of his own personal fortune to win the governor’s office. Bredesen spent $6 million of his own money seeking the governor’s office in 1994, a staggering amount by any measure. Before too much time elapses, Bredesen should address his campaign spending plans. As long as he doesn’t, the threat of his spending whatever it takes will warp the complexion of the contest to the detriment of democracy.

After Bredesen spent that $6 million seven years ago and lost to Gov. Don Sundquist, some of Sundquist’s more craven functionaries drove a bill through the Legislature preventing any candidate from spending more than $250,000 of his money in a primary, and $250,000 in a general election. (The bill’s backers weren’t thinking of protecting democracy; they were thinking of saving Sundquist’s hide.) Conceivably, therefore, Bredesen is restrained from spending much of his own money.

The law probably is unconstitutional, given that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that spending money on one’s own political campaign is a First Amendment free speech guarantee. But that’s really beside the point. Bredesen should put his checkbook in an unused kitchen cabinet and just leave it be. Why? Because democracy is not served when people with unlimited resources buy office.

In the judgment of this newspaper, Phil Bredesen is probably the most attractive candidate of the bunch, both Republican and Democrat. Smart, talented, and with an enviable record as mayor of Nashville, he has the skills necessary to turn around a state that has begun to resemble a small Roman colony slowly entering the Dark Ages. Day by day, we grow poorer, dumber, and dirtier.

But we wouldn’t mind being convinced—fair and square—beyond a reasonable doubt. One other particularly compelling candidate joins Bredesen in the Democratic primary. He is Charles Smith, the former head of the state Board of Regents and the education commissioner under former Gov. Ned McWherter. Smith probably knows more about education than Bredesen does. And Bredesen probably knows more about general obligation bonds and matters of fiscal import than Smith does.

Let the intellectual battle begin.

Government is not the province of the wealthy. It is the province of those people who, by virtue of their personal histories or their talents at political persuasion, are able to convince a majority of the electorate to vote for them.

We want a good, fair fight.


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