David Rodeback's Blog

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Saturday, October 22, 2005
Three Bad Ideas Which Sound Good

On Candidates Accepting Campaign Contributions or Not

Incumbent American Fork City Councilman Jimmie Cates and candidate Marc Ellison proudly proclaimed last Thursday evening that they have accepted no campaign contributions, and therefore are not beholden to any contributors. This ostensibly makes them superior to other candidates, especially in terms of integrity. This may seem good on its face, but it is shallow and potentially misleading. I do not deny that in many instances contributors may expect special consideration on their favorite issues. This is the major reason why campaign finances are reported in detail. But the integrity Cates touts as his greatest political virtue is adequate protection here, when it exists. If Cates and Ellison have integrity, as I think they do, they can accept contributions without compromising their Council votes or their political integrity. For that matter, if the contributors have integrity, they understand that they are contributing to the campaign of someone they think would serve well, not buying specific votes or influence.

Campaign contributions, properly disclosed, serve at least two important roles. First, they allow candidates to run for office even when, for whatever reason, the costs of a campaign would be a personal financial hardship. Surely Cates and Ellison would not assert that only wealthy people should be able to run for office. And they allow me, as the voter, to support in a substantive way the candidates I think would be good for our government. (Some voters cannot or do not want to provide other types of support.) For me, it's a free speech matter.

Actually, there are many other valuable ways to help a candidate. An elected official is likely to feel just as obligated to constituents who gave a lot of time as to those who contributed money, but voters are likely never to know one way or another. At least voters can pass judgment on financial contributions; we lack the information to evaluate candidates' possible loyalties on the basis of non-financial contributions, because they are never reported. In that sense, financial contributions are actually safer ground for the voters and their officials.

From a campaign standpoint, financial contributions also allow more people to be invested in a candidate's success, which is a positive thing. Conversely, the advantages to funding your own campaign, if you can, are two-fold: fund-raising is not fun, and you get to say sanctimonious things during the campaign about not being beholden to anyone. (Fair warning: self-righteousness in candidates plays poorly to a large sector of the voting population.)

Again, I'm not so naive as to believe that votes are not sometimes bought and sold. But, speaking personally, if I find a candidate I think would be very good for government, I want that candidate to run a well-financed, effective campaign and win, not to scrape by on whatever he or she personally can afford, and lose.

I myself, over the years, have contributed some money and a lot of time and professional expertise to political campaigns. In every case, it was because I thought the candidate in question would be the best for the job. Never once have I tried to leverage these contributions into inappropriate access or influence, or tried to exert pressure for a particular vote on a specific issue. My own wife is running for City Council, and I expect she will win in a close race. I have devoted dozens of hours to her campaign. Moreover, it is mostly my paycheck which pays our mortgage, buys ink cartridges for our printers, and fills our gasoline tanks. I happen to know that we more or less agree on many political issues and disagree on some. We go back, personally, almost two decades. But I don't get to tell her how to vote or take personally votes with which I disagree. If she wins, here's how I expect she will behave with respect to me and any issues about which I may care: She will listen (within reason) and understand what I have to say, tell me what she thinks, and then do what she herself thinks is best, even if that is the opposite of what I think.

On Candidates With and Without Agendas

Cates also declared that elected officials should not have "an agenda." I think - hope - what he meant was that they should work for the good of the city, not specifically for their own profit or that of any other private interest. I certainly agree that far. But in context it actually sounded as if he thinks candidates for office should not have specific things they want to accomplish (such as a better downtown, or improved support for the arts or for neighborhoods, or increased openness and professionalism in government). Maybe it's just me, but I actually prefer candidates who bring their own ideas, rather than just waiting for the Mayor to bring them his, for their approval or disapproval.

Remedial Economics

Finally, one candidate keeps dangling the bait, so I'll finally bite. Councilwoman Belmont has said repeatedly that sales tax revenues from inexpensive items, such as hamburgers, don't matter much to City revenues, and that we should attract businesses which sell big-ticket items, like cars. This sounds okay right up until you do the math. In an elected official this primitive level of economic and mathematical cognition is at least disquieting; I'm hoping she really knows better. In any case, when they are subject to the same tax rate, 10,000 Sonic Super-Whatever Combos at $6.00 each bring in precisely the same sales tax revenue as two $30,000 SUVs. I myself buy a lot more hamburgers in American Fork than I do cars; I'm probably not the only one. In short, if we know only the price of two items, we know nothing useful about the comparative sales tax revenues the items provide. We must also know how many of each are sold. Do the math!

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