Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy once described the difference between violence and terrorism as the difference between cat shit and dog shit, writer Jack Beatty recently recalled in The Atlantic Monthly. That “could also apply to the ethical difference between the Democrats and the Republicans when it comes to campaign finance,” Beatty continued. “Like Tolstoy’s dogs and cats, both parties do it.”
As in every other state, candidates and elected officials of both political parties in Tennessee have been guilty of shamelesslyeven recklesslyraising money from various special interests. The lobbyists, more than anyone else, control the state Legislature, literally authoring much of the state’s legislation and furiously contributing to the campaigns of lawmakers when the General Assembly isn’t in session. In many cases, tracking the legislation is as simple as following the money.
Meanwhile, because of a combination of coalescing circumstances, some of them national and some of them local, the single topic of campaign finance is snowballing into one that many of Tennessee’s most well-known politicians are finding they have in commoneven if they’re on opposite sides of the issue.
John Jay Hooker, Tennessee’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee who is campaigning on the broad issue of ending “corruption” in the Legislature, the governor’s office, and the state judiciary, is Tennessee’s single loudest voice for reform. He is so intent on debating Gov. Don Sundquist on the merits of sweeping political change that he even decided this week he would talk about other issues facing the state if the governorand perhaps even the speakers of both houseswould agree to a debate. Hooker suggested the debate participants spend half their allotted time on the subject of “corruption,” and the rest on other issues. He has previously declined to discuss any issues other than political reform.
As Hooker spends endless hours peddling his message to voters, it hasn’t been lost on him just how topical his reformist words are. Hooker revels in the knowledge that at the national level, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno is considering the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate Vice President Al Gore’s brazen fund-raising activities from federal buildings. At the state level, Hooker casts Republican Gov. Sundquist as a “nice man”; he also characterizes him as a shill who is auctioning off the state to Corrections Corporation of America.
Aside from a compelling message, what Hooker has going for him is timing. The issue of campaign finance is not just an interesting message. It happens to be the same topic that has become a national conversation. “The beautiful thing about my message is that it isn’t going away,” Hooker says. “It ripens every day and gets better.”
The power of green
As Gore awaits Reno’s decision about an independent counsel, U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson continues to capture the spotlight for having chaired the Senate committee that investigated campaign finance irregularities in Clinton/Gore fund-raising. As well, his politically adventuresome support for campaign finance reformfew other Republicans in the Senate have publicly supported reformhas earned him high marks in the national media. Without even trying, Thompson has become a national figure polling well among leaders in the Republican Party.
Meanwhile, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander has had to work harder for the same recognition. And though Alexander and Thompson share a political party, they hardly share the same view about how campaigns and political speech should be funded. In fact, Alexander is crusading against the kind of campaign finance reform that has been proposed in Congress. Alexander’s position is that there be no limits on campaign contributions, and that there be full disclosure to the public.
Other Republicans have taken to penning major essays in popular newsweeklies urging their colleagues to support new reform measures. “I may be wrong, but I think we’re now at a juncture where campaign finance reform can’t be stopped,” U.S. Sen. John McCain, a longtime reform supporter, wrote in Newsweek. “Evils never stay the same. They either grow or are eliminated. This evil in our public life continues to growand will until we in the Capitol simply say, ‘Enough.’ ”
A new study by the Federal Election Commission shows that slightly more than 1,500 candidates for the U.S. House and Senate have raised a record-breaking $484 million in the current election cycle. That amount is $37 million, or 8 percent, more than what candidates raised during the 1995-1996 election cycle.
What worries campaign reform supporters is not just the increase in the numbers, but the fact that it has come in an election cycle without a presidential race.
“I think it’s a cause for great concern that you’ve got an 8-percent increase over a presidential election year, accompanied by major rises in soft money occurring in a similar time period,” Steve Weissman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, told Washington, D.C.’s Roll Call newspaper.
Alexander, who traveled to the early primary state of New Hampshire last week campaigning for the 2000 presidential race, says the reason campaign finance reform hasn’t progressed as a national issue is because people don’t care about it. And, he says, government has no business regulating what he characterizes as a “free-speech” issue.
“I believe that the right thing to do is to let a candidate raise money and speak out and fully disclose where they got their money,” he says. “If they take money from the wrong people or too much money, then let that be a political issue.”
The First Amendment “guarantees the right of billionaires to use their own money to speak out, TV stations to speak out, newspapers to speak out, of the teachers’ union and the whiskey lobby,” Alexander says. “If they all have a right to speak, then I don’t know how we can limit the right of candidates to raise money and say what they have to say.”
Alexander has gone so far as to say that if “today’s so-called campaign-finance reformers had been around in 1776,” they would have declared Thomas Paine’s Common Sense political speech. “To print his pamphlet, Paine and his fellow supporters of independence would have to form a political action committee called, say, ‘People for the Overthrow of the Mad King.’ ” Under some versions of reforms being proposed, Alexander says, “they would have to give King George equal time.”
The presidential aspirant even proposed in a speech to the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C., earlier this year to “banish the phrase ‘campaign finance reform’ from our vocabulary. Its supporters won’t acknowledge it, but ‘campaign finance reform’ is a euphemism for government regulation of political speech. And what our campaigns need is more freedom of speech, not less.”
Hooker, meanwhile, offers “the back of my hand” to Alexander, Gore, Sundquist, and any other politicians engaged in accepting special-interest money or donations from anyone ineligible to vote for them.
“This country belongs to everybody, not just the people with $100,000,” says Hooker, who advocates publicly financed elections. “What the hell are we doing permitting all these special interests to own all our public officials when you can finance the election process? I’m on the right subject. And I got the right marketing plan. The thing about it, you see, is that’s it’s so correctable.”
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