OP-ED | Public Service is Great, If You Can Afford It
by Susan Bigelow | Jan 15, 2019 5:15am
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Posted to: Analysis, Campaign Finance, Civil Liberties, Congress, Election Policy, Opinion, State Capitol, White House
Amidst the warm afterglow of Ned Lamont’s inauguration as Connecticut’s 89th governor came the news that the optimistic, amicable cable executive from Greenwich had spent $15 million of his own money to get himself here. His opponent, corporate executive Bob Stefanowski, also tried to buy the governorship but could only afford to pony up a measly $2 million.
Lamont is definitely not alone when it comes to governors who could buy and sell you. Not that Ned would! He’s way too nice. But several of the nation’s wealthy governors make him look like a pauper.
Take Bill Haslam, the outgoing governor of Tennessee, who is worth $2 billion — though he only spent around $3 million of that to win election in 2010. Jim Justice, the richest man in West Virginia with a net worth of $1.9 billion, spent $4 million to become governor of that state. And then there’s J.B. Pritzker, whose family owns the Hyatt chain of hotels. He’s worth $3.5 billion, and he spent a staggering $171 million of it on his successful campaign for governor of Illinois.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Politicians from Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania to Charlie Baker in Massachusetts have spent huge sums of their own money on campaigns. Stefanowski’s free-spending ways are likely what won him the Republican primary here in Connecticut, where the state GOP has a history of nominating the richest person in the room.
And of course there’s President Trump, who spent 4.4 billion rubles ($66 million) of his own fortune getting elected. It seems like more and more the rich have a stranglehold on our country’s highest offices.
So what’s going on? Why is this happening now?
This is happening partly because campaigns are unbelievably expensive, and getting more so. Each election year sets a new record for total money spent and, in the post-Citizens United era, spending by outside groups has skyrocketed.
Individual contributions to campaigns won’t always be able to pay for the all-out-war style of politics in this country, and there are actual limits on those donations. It’s tough to raise money, especially when the candidate isn’t well-known. Advertising isn’t as simple as it was, either. Instead of buying TV time in a few markets, campaigns need a sound digital strategy that works across all major platforms.
Campaigns also never end. It’s normal for presidential campaigns to start up two years before the election, and that’s increasingly true for campaigns for Congress. Gubernatorial campaigns aren’t at that point yet, but many of the campaigns here in Connecticut were well underway by summer of 2017.
All of this is a lot easier to navigate if you have a big, fat wallet full of cash.
There’s a cultural aspect to this, too. We’ve suffered from the political delusion that business executives are far better able to run government because they have been successful at business. This is wrong, of course, since business and government are incredibly different things. In fact, a lot of the rich people who bulldozed their way into high office with zero government experience foundered and failed.
But beyond that, I sense a sort of noblesse oblige, or the ancient idea of the obligation of the aristocracy to give back in some way to the pitiful poors who raised them up on their backs. In a country where the chasm between rich and poor is ever-growing, it’s starting to feel like the moneyed class is also the governing class. Both classes are becoming equally inaccessible for regular people.
We could, and we should, fix this. We need an election reform amendment to the Constitution that shortens campaigns and makes all campaign spending public, like it is in other countries. We need to pay lawmakers at lower levels, like those in Connecticut’s legislature, a salary that they can actually survive on without needing another job. The fanciful ideal of the part-time legislator is a relic of an earlier time when only the rich served in government.
And we need to get over believing that the rich are somehow better. That’s a hard one. It’s burned deep in our national psyche that anyone who has money somehow deserves it, and that anyone without money is lazy or foolish or immoral.
I hope that Ned Lamont will be a different kind of wealthy governor, one who actually does understand the people of this state. But I also feel like that’s something I shouldn’t have to hope for.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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