Shopping as a consumer and voting in exercise of your political rights as a citizen is purely up to you. It’s really nobody’s business who you do business with or who you vote for unless you want it to be. Of course, where we shop and where we buy is detectable. But we don’t have to explain ourselves to anybody for lawful business that has no taint of illegality or impropriety. And as for voting, aside from polling workers who, when we request a Republican primary ballot make a face and talk it up and suggest disaffiliation on our way out, at least the final act of voting is reputedly private.
But some things we think ought to be public. We have campaign finance laws that serve, not only to discourage candidacy and make politics a business, but are believed to help keep elections “fair.” For sure, Campaign finance laws make public important information that reminds people that running against an incumbent is often folly and that personal wealth is required in most races.
Of course, campaign finance laws are intended or at least argued as a protection of the public interest in preventing the dominance of powerful moneyed interests. My cynical view of campaign finance laws, that they work as much to discourage candidacy and preserve incumbency as they serve to protect us from moneyed interests is my own view. The law represents a decision by the People, which ropes me in too. We want to know who is providing the money, and we want to know that politicians aren’t creating little rackets to trade influence.
Of course my cynicism is supported by the fact that I know that the winner of an election will have fundraisers after the election. This is actually a wonderful time of healing. Those who supported the other candidate can come to the fundraiser and make a bigger donation. Those candidates who loan their campaign’s money? It’s a big time of healing for their wallet.
Let’s say you lend you campaign one million dollars. Maybe it’s just family money you inherited. Your family had a good estate plan. You received real estate that received a free step up in basis to its fair market value as of the date of death of Grandma, so it can be sold without any gain being recognized. That’s a beautiful thing that says if you want your family to rise, buy a home at least. When you die your kids will get a financial shot in the arm. In that circumstance, donating or lending a million dollars to your campaign is a million dollars. But if you had to earn that money, cost of the million you loan your campaign is even greater.
Let’s assume you make or earn and then loan your campaign a million dollars and then you win the election. Your post-election fundraising goal is a million dollars for sure. As a matter of fact, the million you loaned may actually represent perhaps 1.3 million of gross income. The million was take home pay after taxes. That’s a lot of money. Most of you have never seen your gross pay. You saw what was left after withholding.
Campaign finance laws, if intended to prevent domination of public affairs by moneyed interests simply dress it up. You really want to prevent influence peddling? Make post-election fundraisers illegal. Candidates won’t loan money to campaigns with a sweaty need to get it back after the election. They will donate it or not. There will be no post-election pressure to bend to moneyed interests. Moneyed interests that can’t donate to the winner after the fact might make principled choices of which candidates they support knowing they can’t make amends to the winner.
The other big hole in campaign finance law has to be left open. That is, the press and its ability to throw it’s weigh around. The press can really hammer or lift up a campaign. The press is influential. Politifact can post an icon of a story with a mostly false, or a false, or a pants on fire and a little red light or even hellish flames on a candidate and many will not even read the story, and simply accept the judgment. A picture is worth a thousand words. Conversely, they can review a statement that has no importance to anyone, find it true, and give a candidate a nice green light. Again, some won’t even read the story. The press will have made a gigantic “ in-kind “ ( non-monetary) contribution to a candidate that is akin to a money contribution from a powerful interest and we simply have to let it go, leave it to the candidate to find a way to deflate or counter the story. Existing office holders have the gravitas to suffer such blows but the danger of losing is increased. New comers get defined and slaughtered. A picture is worth a thousand words.
But limiting the press would offend the first amendment and chill free expression. We must rely on the ability of individuals to filter the material themselves. As education, Greek and Roman law and later the printing press, made an enduring government of the people by the people for the people an ever more attainable and enduring reality, the internet and social media and this information age in which we live allows the individual to research whether a story is factually correct. But still, a story can be presented in such a way that a sort of false law or false principle or false ethic is insinuated and then its alleged breach is proffered as an outrage. A play can be made on a fear, in the instance I want to consider, the fear that something that is “yours” was given to someone else. There’s a mouse guarding a little crumb of bread in all of us.
A classic example of this is the Block Campaign’s complaint that the Fung Campaign’s open for business ad was not shot in Rhode Island. First, Allen Fun’s donors are largely okay with that. It’s their money that was donated. They just want the message out, knowing they are up against campaign with millions beyond the Fung Campaign. Secondly, the shooting of the ad coincided with Fung raising money out of state, another win from the perspective of the Fung donor. But the Block campaign convinced some mice that the money donated by Mayor Allen Fung’s supporters could have been “their” crumb of bread. Luckily, most people recognize a manipulation when they hear it, even if they can’t quite articulate it. And while my tantric mental processes allow me to fully appreciate, ponder and cast charms against the deceit proffered by such manipulations, the peeps need a simpler more reflexive and instantaneous means of recognizing influence peddling in the press. Sometimes a picture is worth thousand words.
Following the story about the “outrage” of Fung sitting in an anonymous iconic diner, “not in Rhode Island” to contribute his speaking segment to an ad, the media outlet followed with another faux outrage. A Cranston hot Weiner restaurant would have liked to be in the ad. Well, there’s more than one hot weiner restaurant in Cranston. In fact there are lots of restaurants in Cranston, and most of them like to serve Democrats, Independents and Republicans. In fact, by law they also have to serve Moderate Party members (lat. Chamaeleonidae) should any come in, and I say give those Moderate party members a little extra smile and a bit of encouragement to help them move on. It’s tough to be an orphan.
Most restaurants prefer or with a little reflection would prefer to be politically neutral. Their creditors and suppliers support would nod emphatically. Sell food to everybody. Host a fundraiser. But don’t unduly and embroil your business in or define it by your politics. Plenty of artisan coffee places served me, a Republican, her in Rhode Island, long before Representative Doreen Costa opened a coffee “safe-house” for conservatives. Liberal Senator Josh Miller’s Hot Club serves Republicans. I’ve even had free popcorn there. In another business, John Hazen White, for example, hosted a Block event and a Fung event at TACO facilities in Cranston. He wanted to be neutral by being inclusive, like serving everybody. He has a good room and he made it available to serve the civic process of elections. But he didn’t take sides. That was probably more about respecting his employees, than retail customers. Businesses do make choices in supporting candidates, but at the retail level, they keep it light and inclusive.
The truth is that business wants to be neutral, but equally true is that form the campaign side, you can’t feature everybody, so, maybe it’s better to not injure anybody. Slight no one. Do no harm. Pick an anonymous iconic symbolic setting. Are we supposed to be impressed that other campaigns are projecting on a green screen in Rhode Island?
Probably out of raw aggression, the Block campaign never thought of it that way, and invented a new rule, one designed to put Block and his largely self-financed campaign on the right side of the made-up rule and Fung, and his more donor supported campaign on the wrong side. The reality of business retail neutrality was replaced with falsity; a provocation aimed at that little mouse inside of each of us, jealous of every crumb. Why would a media outlet be so interested running such a crumby story designed to play on our pre-primate wiring and upset people over nothing? Again, a picture is worth a thousand words.
On the page with the crumby story are two campaign ads paid for by the Block Campaign. Luckily a when a campaign has obviously spoon fed a faux outrage to a media outlet, the picture of the same campaign’s ads all around the page easily reveal the bias toward the source of the advertising dollars. That’s understandable. It takes money to run a paper or media outlet. God knows my readers and I wish I were assisted by a paid staff of copy editors. I want the person who has to sell ads, to make their commission too. It is all part of the influence peddling and the in-kind contribution that and that must be tolerated under the umbrella of the freedom of the press thought it evades campaign finance laws. But maybe, where a media outlet is going to so obviously run campaign efforts as “news” we need to have the capability of recognizing what is going on. We can’t it, but mentally we can consider the source and recognize the picture before and then, as we read such a crumby story in our mind’s eye insert the header or the footer: “This item is a paid advertisement.”
Mike Gardiner is an attorney based in Providence, former Republican candidate for U.S. Congress, and host of the Mic Gardiner Show, Tuesdays at 6 PM.