OP-ED | Democrats Should Rethink Their Embrace of Big Money
There used to be a time when Connecticut Democrats spoke about getting the money out of politics. That doesn’t happen so much these days, as this week’s eye-popping fundraising numbers illustrate.
First, it turned out that to get a seat at a breakfast featuring Gov. Dannel P. Malloy at the Democratic Governors’ Association it would cost you anywhere from $10,000 to $250,000. Then it was revealed that the head of Northeast Utilities was, ah, “suggesting” that top managers support the re-election of the governor by contributing to the state Democratic Party.
None of what the Democrats are doing is actually against the law, of course. The NU managers dutifully sent money to the federal PAC set up by the state party, which is outside the reach of Connecticut’s more stringent campaign finance laws. It’s the sort of thing that makes most people cringe, but there’s nothing technically illegal about it.
Also, charging suckers a lot of money to sit at a table and clap when the politician on stage says something you like is a time-honored tradition, especially when it might buy you a moment’s worth of “access” to said politician or, better, his staff. It’s gaudy and ostentatious, but it’s also legal.
Connecticut Democrats were vaguely supportive of cleaner elections a long time ago, but apparently now that the cash spigot has been turned to high they’re not so interested anymore. Campaign finance rules have been gutted to allow more donations to the state party, and the governor vetoed a bill put on his desk last year that would have forced corporations and other independent groups that run ads to disclose their donors.
This continuing embrace of big money doesn’t particularly surprise me; I don’t have a lot of faith in the political system to do the right thing these days. I am disappointed, though. I used to be a big believer in campaign finance reform, and its power to change politics. When I was young I went door-to-door for a third-party candidate, talking up the rightness of reforming donations and public campaign financing. This was the Rowland era, so it made a lot of sense, but the Democrats buried my candidate in money and people forgot about reform until Rowland messed up so spectacularly that something had to be done. After he was chased from office they finally reformed the laws and everything was much better.
At least, I used to think that was true. But if huge sums of money are flowing both legally and illegally around our restrictions, and if the heads of companies that are intimately tied to the state are encouraging subordinates to donate to the party in charge, and if the governor is taking big trips out of state for fundraisers and charging six figures for the pleasure of interacting with him, then it doesn’t really seem like the place of big money in our politics is any different.
Republicans are angry, of course, but their indignation has a hollow, phony feel to it. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, a prospective GOP gubernatorial candidate, shared his indignation in an email to supporters . . . right before he asked them for money. There’s a difference of degree: $10,000 a plate isn’t the same as an email asking for $35. That still may not have been the best choice of fundraising pitches.
In any case, Republicans are stuck with abysmally low fundraising numbers as the state party continues to founder. All of that makes me wonder just what the state Democratic Party is raising all this cash for, especially since Tom Foley is apparently going to use the public financing system this time.
They may be coming around to the idea that the economy is still going to be lousy in 2014, voters are still going to be grouchy, and that whoever Malloy runs against will have a shot at winning if they aren’t some sort of horrible monster, and so the Democrats are going to try throwing a lot of money at the race and hope for the best. I actually think they don’t need to do that. They can do just as well with smart politics, outreach to disaffected party activists, and hard work, rather than an avalanche of suspicious money.
Meanwhile, Democrats should step back and realize just how far they’ve fallen. “Yes, but it’s perfectly legal” is a lousy excuse. The party should give back the Northeast Utilities money, and then think about really reforming campaign finance and adding to the law’s safeguards instead of continuing to erode them.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.