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Alternative financing

In today’s Danny Westneat column bemoaning the attempt by the Building Industry Association of Washington to buy a seat on the Washington Supreme Court – and yes, that is what it is trying to do – appear two notably useful points.

One is the unprecedented nature of the seven-figure sums raised for a Supreme Court candidate, in this case a challenger to an incumbent (and broadly respected) chief justice. The incumbent is Gerry Alexander; the challenger is John Groen, whose signs are closely-placed all over the state, and broadcast ads on whose behalf are spaced even more closely. Apart from the ugly nature of the campaign, which last week dominated politics in Washington state, is the idea that one narrow group would spend the concentrated funds to place its own partisan – and Groen is a former counsel for BIAW and served on its board – in office. They may get it done, too, since Washington voters have been inundated with anti-Alexander ads drastically outnumbering those on the opopsition (which are mostly anti-Groen).

Westneat points out: “A single special interest, the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW), has directed more than $1 million trying to buy its handpicked candidate, Redmond lawyer John Groen, a seat on the state Supreme Court. The special-interest spending for a judgeship is unprecedented. If you add in $357,000 spent mostly on Groen’s behalf by a national business group, Americans Tired of Lawsuit Abuse, these two fat cats have spent more trying to get their guy on the court than all nine candidates themselves combined.”

Let’s put on a wider-angle lens: What’s happening in this race has been happening for a decade and more in the case of ballot issues – narrow interest groups, or individual people of wealth, subsidizing ad campaigns that, for a short run at least, can influence enough voters to pass an issue or elect a candidate. (Oregon saw it earlier this year when Republican gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix was overwhelmingly and massively unwritten by a single welathy friend, who didn’t even, any longer, live in Oregon.) Increasingly, our system of electoral politics is being gamed by a handful of people who don’t parting with wads of cash in the interest of making a good investment – a government that will see things their way.

Is there a way out?

Westneat’s column went on to consider Terry Sullivan, a Vashon Island activist for public financing of campaigns. The usual approach, nationally, and the one tried last year in Portland, has been to offer money to candidates (ordinarily not ballot issues) set amounts of money to a run a campaign, as an alternative to private fundraising. That approach has usually gotten a negative reaction from most people, who raise understandable questions about candidates getting into races for the money.

Suppose, though, it was used in a different way – taking a tip from the “millionaire’s trigger” already in place in congressional races. That trigger relaxes federal campaign rules applying to candidates running against candidates who heavuly self-fund their races.

Why not this: If – but only if – a candidate, or one side of a ballot issue, hits certain thresholds, the other side can dip into a public fund to match it? Let’s say you’re running against a candidate who starts out in the same poorhouse you are; at that point, you’re both on your own. But now let’s say your opponent abruptly gets a half-million from a billionaire pal, and you’re suddenly about to be swamped with their pro-him and anti-you TV ads, a message deluge you can’t match. With such a fund, you could match your opponent, eliminating the money advantage. The formula triggering the use of such a fund could vary from place to place, and by amount and by office, or by other criteria. The formula could be set up with a criterion in mind: No one, and no small combination of interests, should be able to buy a public office.

Campaign financing somewhat like that has been adopted in some places. Westneat: “The effect in Maine and Arizona has been that the special interests no longer bother. If they know they’re not going to have the power to themselves, they stand down. And concentrate on lobbying instead.”

Not that lobbying is always a matter of perfect purity. But lobbying done legally and ethically is far, far better than what may happen to Washington’s Supreme Court in Tuesday’s election.

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