Buying elections

Maria Cantwell paid heavily to support campaign finance reform.

Our new senator, Maria Cantwell, wants to clean up the money trough in American politics. "It is highly ironic and somewhat bizarre," says Chuck Lewis of the DC watchdog Center for Public Integrity. The irony is that Cantwell spent nearly $10 million of her personal wealth to take on longtime incumbent Slade Gorton. Cognitive dissonance buzzes loudly when "millionaires talk about democratizing our campaign finance system," Lewis adds.

Cantwell says she'll vote in favor of banning "soft money." During the election, she eschewed soft money while, nationally, the major parties picked up $410 million in such unregulated donations. "Our political system is captured by special interests," she says.

But it's easier for wealthy candidates (Cantwell's estimated worth is between $30 million and $40 million) to support campaign finance reform. The Supreme Court has unconditionally upheld the right of the rich to fund their own campaigns, so no law will stop Cantwell from spending her own money however she pleases. "There's nothing easy about writing million dollar checks," replies Cantwell.

She should know. As of November 27, she had contributed over $6 million to her own campaign and lent her effort $3.7 million more. By contributing rather than loaning most of the money to her campaign, Cantwell is going against the grain. "Most self-financed candidates loan [their campaigns] most of the money and then, once safely ensconced in office, set about paying themselves back," says political money watcher Sheila Krumholz of the Center for Responsive Politics.

Two other successful candidates for Senate this year, both Democrats, paid their own way: New Jersey's Jon Corzine (loaned his campaign $52.6 million, contributed $2,000) and Minnesota's Mark Dayton (loaned his campaign $5.4 million and contributed $3.4 million). The phenomenon of multimillionaire candidates who pay their own way makes Krumholz uneasy. "Is the resulting system a democracy or a plutocracy?" she wonders. If the trend set by Cantwell and others continues, we'll have plenty of opportunity to find out.

However Cantwell got into office, Senate campaign finance reformers are glad to have her aboard. Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., have been trying to pass a soft money ban for years, only to be thwarted by Senate Republicans including the ousted Gorton. Now the reformers are fairly confident they have not only the 51 votes to pass the bill but also the 61 senators needed to bust up any conservative filibuster. Whether there is the two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a possible veto by likely President George W. Bush is another matter.

Cantwell wants to push far beyond a soft money ban. "I'm a supporter of public financing of campaigns," she says, and expresses admiration for the "states of Maine and Vermont and their 'clean politics' approach." Those states, along with Massachusetts and Arizona, have passed "clean election" laws, where candidates who eschew all private fund-raising receive full funding for their runs from the taxpayers. Though most political observers say a "clean election" law has no chance of passing Congress, "Maria is going to push hard and aggressively on this issue," promises her political advisor Ron Dotzhauer.

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