Thursday, December 29, 2005

Jodi Rell, Saint or Sinner

"This is not, I think, what any of us would have expected,” said a disappointed Lieutenant Governor Kevin Sullivan, “from a governor who has set a very high standard for everyone else.”

Sullivan, a Democrat, said he withheld comment on what some are calling Moodygate for a couple of weeks so as to give the governor an opportunity to clear her head, but Rell simply had not measured up to her own high ethical expectations of the behavior of other politicians, mostly Democrats. The governor’s Chief of Staff, Lisa Moody, may have broken the law when she distributed fundraising invitations to several of the governor’s commissioners. Investigations by Chief State’s Attorney Christopher Morano and the State Elections Enforcement Commission are underway. The governor has suspended Moody without pay for two weeks, a sanction characterized by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, one of two Democrat candidates for governor, as “a holiday vacation.”

“I have been very reluctant to comment on these serious allegations of illegal and unethical conduct,” Sullivan said. “Since Governor Rell has made so much of her high standards for others, we all expected her to be even tougher and more forthcoming when the misconduct involves her own office. Instead, it has been disappointing to see the Governor try to minimize the situation. Worse still, she refuses to disclose the campaign contributions that have been returned in a way that avoids any official record and then invites the same suspect donors to contribute again anyway. But it’s not too late, and full disclosure should not require that this information be extracted through the freedom of information laws or subpoenaed by either those investigating or legislative authorities.”

Rell got the jump on Democrats in the matter of ethics reform, and the loyal opposition now is attempting to scuff up the governor’s squeaky clean image in hopes of bringing down her sky-high poll ratings. In politics, this is called “making the best of a bad situation.” Now that Rell is bent over an ethical barrel, Democrat leaders, despite Sullivan’s touching solicitude, may be expected to roll it down the slippery slope. The governor’s ethical strictures, Democrats gleefully point out, are more stringent that the law Moody may have broken, and the governor’s chief of staff violated both with impunity.

So, what happens now?

The investigations will proceed slowly and deliberately. It took Morano months to investigate charges in connection with Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy’s campaign fundraising activities, making Malloy the only gubernatorial contestant put through the investigatory ringer and found innocent. Democrats will continue to press their considerable advantages. With one fell swoop, Moody’s putative “illegal” solicitation implicated all the governor’s commissioners. Rell first raised expectations of full disclosure and then refused to release the names of the solicited commissioners. The governor’s press secretary, Rich Harris, argued that the return of the contributions relieved her of the necessity of revealing the names because the contributions never made it to the bank. Democrats have polished their campaign lines and may be expected to sing in chorus that the governor is chronically incapable of noticing the ethical flaws of her compatriots, a tad hypocritical in insisting that others do what she says but not what she does, and unwilling to purge offenders that are close to her.

All this may or may not affect the polls -- for reasons that may seem odd to politicians and ethicists. Politicians, who see themselves darkly in media mirrors, do not always understand that most people are not like them. Common folk have a realistic understanding of the frailty of human nature, which is why slighting references to former governor John Rowland in the upcoming campaign, after he is released from prison, may not fall on fertile ground. Most people have an appreciation of reality different and more faithful to essential truths that of politicians, whose perceptions are altered by considerations that lie outside the experience of ordinary people. People admire politicians who are authentic, and the attack on Rell is an assault on her authenticity. Rowland did wrong, and paid for it dearly. Any attempt to use him as a political foil to skewer the governor, now that he has given up a pound of flesh for his wrongdoing, may seem too much like the act of a schoolyard bully, and authenticity itself is the most effective response to assaults on character.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thanks Andy: How Sauer and the Democrats Achieved Compromise

Andy Sauer is the executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Common Cause, which bills itself, according to an introductory blurb provided in a recent interview, as “a non-profit lobbying group that says it promotes responsible, accountable government, and has long fought for campaign finance reform.”

Part of this is true. Common Cause is a liberal lobbying group that has aggressively pushed campaign finance reform. The whole gaggle of liberal lobbying groups was there, according to Sauer, at the birth of the campaign finance reform bill, and their influence cannot be overstated. They shaped the bill voted into law by the legislature.

Praising Gov. Jodi Rell, Sauer remarked in the interview, “One of the first things she did was [to] meet with campaign finance reform advocates. I was there ... Tom Swan [of Connecticut Citizen Action Group], Karen Hobert Flynn as the chair of Common Cause was there, the League of Women Voters, CONNpirg ... We were the first, and to the best of my knowledge, the only registered lobbyists she has met with in the Capitol. So she made this issue very important. She put it on the radar screen for everyone.”

Most of these groups have what might be described as a money problem. It was the baleful influence of money in politics that drew Sauer to campaign finance reform. Asked why he was so passionate on the issue, Sauer said it was the mother of all reforms: “All reforms, whether it's education, property tax, environmental reforms - all those reforms require debate. It requires a dialogue between all points of view to construct the best reform. Each reform is multi-faceted. The point is, get in a room, talk, and work it out. Money distorts the debate. Time and time again, every single reform that is discussed at the Capitol, money is distorting the debate… It's a bidding war, and anyone who says otherwise is not being honest. Because there have been so many examples at the Capitol where money has trumped - end of story.”

Democracy depends upon debate; money distorts debate; therefore politics must be purged of money: That has been pretty much Sauer’s argument throughout the struggle for campaign finance reform. Liberals are not often willing to entertain debate on this point. It is taken as “given,” an unquestionable premise not open to discussion.

It is doubtful, however, whether the campaign finance reform dear to Sauer’s heart will wring money out of politics. Money will find a way. Business lobbyists swarm around the capitol because, as has been shown in three stunning economic reports, legislators are capable of distorting the market place, and not to the benefit of people who live and work in the state. It is legislation unfriendly to business that has, over the past thirty years, contributed to Connecticut’s last place position among states in job production. Everybody but Sauer knows that influence peddling by business lobbyists in the legislature is directly related to punitive bills cranked out by legislators.

Money -- and politicians too clever by half -- already have found a way in the reform bill Sauer and others regard as imperfect but perfectible at some unspecified later date. The bill contains loopholes large enough to allow through them a jingling sleigh containing the entire Democrat and Republican legislative caucuses and eight tiny reindeer.

It was the high threshold amounts challengers were forced to meet before acquiring public funds that excited the interest of former Gov. Lowell Weicker and other pro third party Independistas. These hurdles are a “pay to play” measure for challengers that somehow have not offended reformist true believers. The bill restricts funds from business agents, usually regarded as friendly towards Republicans but does not prohibit in-kind campaign contributions from unions friendly towards Democrats. Some critics of the bill feel that unregulated legislative PAC contributions open a window of possible corruption that the bill itself sought to mitigate by restricting contributions identified in the public imagination as questionable and possibly unethical.

The bill in its final form, friendly to incumbents, is hostile to primary challengers and independent campaigners. It gives a decisive edge in the distribution of campaign funds to Democrats, since party leaders control the distribution of PAC money and Democrats outnumber Republicans in the state, for which every one – not least of all leading Democrats – should offer formal thanks to Sauer and other liberal lobbying groups that fashioned the bill.

Way to go Andy!

Friday, December 16, 2005

Lisa Moody's Blues

In handing out invitations to state commissioners and inviting them both to contribute to Gov. Jodi Rell’s campaign and to solicit funds, Lisa Moody, the governor’s chief of staff, was violating a well known regulation. Her claim that the violation was inadvertent is not plausible. As one commentator pointed out, Moody has been attached to Rell by the hip every since the governor’s more uneventful days as Lieutenant Governor and she has earned a reputation as a detail hawk.

The open question therefore is: Shall Moody be hanged; or hanged and quartered; or hanged and quartered and burned at the state capitol, her ashes to be sown over the lawn as an example to politicians that Connecticut, at long last, has become serious about ethics reform?

Two Democrat gubernatorial aspirants, New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Stamford Mayor Dannel Malloy, called upon Rell to suspend Moody immediately. There is no need, DeStefano said, for Rell to wait upon the completion of investigations begun by Chief State's Attorney Christopher L. Morano or the State Elections Enforcement Commission. And Malloy called upon Rell to have her “ethics czar,” Rachel Rubin, conduct a separate investigation. Wondering darkly if Rubin was aware of Moody’s improper activity, Malloy hinted that Rubin might well find her own head on the ethics execution block.

Moody’s slide down the ethical chutey-chute occurred only a few days after Rell announced she would take no funds for her gubernatorial campaign from the Republican Party. Other Republicans, adverse to financial suicide, will accept money from some sources banned by the governor.

Democrats were quick to point out the loopholes in Rell’s plan: The governor would still accept some in-kind contributions, such as shared polling data from her party, and her donor ban would apply only to people who have "personally solicited, negotiated or signed a contract with the state since July 1, 2004." Owners of companies that have live contracts with the state could continue under the Rell plan to supply campaign contributions, provided the owners played no personal role in arranging the contract. Rell was using her party as a money laundering instrument, Democrats charged.

What we have brewing here is a mini French Revolution. That revolution, begun on a promising note, ended in a bloodbath in which successive revolutionists, each purer and more dedicated than their predecessors, guillotined each other with reckless abandon. In the end, the revolution assumed a life of its own, engorging itself upon the corpses of impure revolutionists. Such has been the case with every radical reform that has insisted on the perfectibility of human nature. The American Revolution, grounded philosophically upon the imperfectability of human nature, wisely set factions against each other so that imperfect purists could not achieve supremacy.

The Dantons in the Democrat Party now putting themselves forward as ethicists purer than the driven snow – though, in this regard, it would be difficult to outdo Rell -- seem to be unaware that they are sitting astride a rolling stone that may crush them as well.

What the state desperately needs are critics of radical reform. In past times, critics of the perfectibility of human nature, historically an anti-human notion that usually has ended in grief, were plentiful in politics and the press. John Adams, a close student of human nature in the raw, consistently railed against Thomas Jefferson’s angelism. Both had witnessed a revolution in France that inspired Jefferson and repulsed Adams. Among notable American journalists, Henry Mencken, who counted Ambrose Bierce as his friend and compatriot, buried moralistic legislators under mountains of hostile rhetoric.

“It must be plain,” Mencken wrote, “that this process of law-making by orgy, with fanatics supplying the motive-power and unconscionable knaves steering the machine, is bound to fill the statute-books with enactments that have no rational use or value save that of serving as instruments of psychopathological persecution and private revenge… They involve gross invasions of the most elementary rights of the free citizen, but they are popular with the mob because they have a virtuous smack and provide it with an endless succession of barbarous but thrilling shows.”

The danger always is that reformists will carry their impractical reforms too far. It is one thing to rail against contractors who can be shown to have purchased legislation through campaign contributions, and even in this case legislative prescriptions should be narrowly focused so as not to deprive citizens of their inviolable constitutional rights; but it is lunacy to insist that political parties should not be able to provide candidates for office with sufficient funds to win elections, provided that such funds are transparent and well publicized.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

When A Weicker Meets A Maverick, Coming Through The Rye

Here is a thumbnail view, admittedly incomplete, of former governor and senator Lowell Weicker’s political philosophy:

The United States is a republic, not a democracy. In a republican form of government, the people rule through elected representatives. As a practical matter, at least for Weicker, this means that the whole apparatus of modern politics is hopelessly defective. Polls and especially referendums are useless excrescences. Politicians should conduct themselves as if they were above polls, the media, clamorous political commentators and even, Weicker does not blush to say it, political parties. The former Republican senator is notorious for having defined himself as “the turd in the Republican Party punchbowl.” Anything that comes between a politician and what the politician knows to be right, judging from his own experience, must be brushed away with a sneer and a catcall. The primary virtue of a politician, overriding all lesser virtues, is guts: Do what you think is right though, in doing it, you pull down on your head and others the edifice in which you work, live and breathe. Wear your defeats proudly on your breast as a red badge of courage, and if the people you represent do not like living in the ruins you have made, they can always vote you out of office. It is this last virtue that has throughout his career endeared Weicker to people who would rather win a political battle and lose a war.

This philosophy can be seen baring its teeth in Weicker’s latest political pronouncement. His is an operative and not merely a speculative philosophy, which may be why Weicker will not be challenging Senator Joe Lieberman in a political contest any time soon, though hopes of a rematch among liberals and anti-war proponents were raised recently after Weicker had been interrogated by a talk show host and did not deny in absolute terms the possibility of a re-entry into politics.

As everyone in Connecticut must know by now, Lieberman has put himself at odds with his party’s leaders – Shades of Weicker! – by upholding President George Bush’s view of the war in Iraq, thus earning the contumely of Democrats and much of the media. Passing over the question whether Lieberman’s position is right or wrong, the senator’s lonely stand should be regarded by Weicker’s measure as principled and “gutsy.”

Had not Lieberman, following a path once trodden by Weicker, screwed his courage to the hitching post and bucked his party? Indeed, had Lieberman “played it safe” -- an expression used by professor Weicker at the University of Virginia to dazzle admiring students and cast luster on his own public career as a maverick -- Weicker would not now be enticing Democrats to throw Lieberman out of the party boat by hinting broadly that, if no one else is up to it, the old political war horse might come out of retirement, toss his cane aside and enter the race as an independent. Weicker has ruled out affiliating himself with the Democrat Party to run against Lieberman in a primary, possibly the only way he might beat the incumbent senator.

Lieberman, in fact, is the mirror image of Weicker in reverse: He votes with his party on most issues, as did Weicker when he was senator, and yet parts company with liberal Democrats on foreign policy; as senator, Weicker parted company with the conservative wing of his party on foreign policy. Weicker, of course, was much more abrasive as senator than Lieberman, which is why, at the end of his political career Republicans did not shed tears in the punch bowl as Weicker left the political stage.

There are, to be sure, some important differences between Weicker and Lieberman, other than temperament. Lieberman is as placid and contemplative as Weicker is stormy and emotional. They are the odd couple of Connecticut politics. Lieberman, who admired Democrat party boss John Bailey enough to write a book about him --Weicker’s book was about Weicker -- understands the utility of parties and has never claimed to be an independent, except on those rare occasions when principle guided by pragmatism has forced a breach.

It is still an open question whether Iraq will emerge as a nascent democracy or deteriorate, once American troops leave, into a theocratic steam pot hostile to Western interests. But there is little doubt that Lieberman’s take on Iraq does not please his party and is, at bottom, courageous and firmly anchored in principle. The louder Weicker’s protest becomes, the more he sounds like a parody of his bitterest opponents.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

After the Ball Is Over: Connecticut's Great Experiment in Campaign Finance Reform

So then, almost everyone is happy, though murmurs continue to be heard from some corners of the political barracks.

After the Democrat plan for campaign finance reform passed through the legislature, minority Republicans dissenting, Democrats launched whole symphony of now familiar sound bites. Nothing in this veil of tears is perfect they acknowledged, but imperfections in the bill could be settled later on. As Bill Curry used to say, “We should not let the perfect become the enemy of the good.” Connecticut once again had shown itself to be a reformist bellwether that got the jump on other less progressive sister states in the blue Northeast corridor. Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams advised that everyone should look upon the new legislation as a learning opportunity and a grand experiment.

There were bits and pieces in the legislation to dissatisfy almost every political interest group, with the possible exception of the Democratic caucus. Democrat leaders managed to secure the interests of their majority party while sticking a sharp pencil in the eyes of Republicans. The reform legislation prevents the usual business culprits from lobbying the legislature with dollars during campaigns but does not – surprise! – much affect the continuing raid and capture of the Democratic Party by union interests.

Among the parties dissatisfied by the legislation are: 1) some few Jeffersonian rebels in the state who feel, along with their hero, that forcing people to contribute to the maintenance of politicians with whom they disagree is a form of tyranny; 2) House Minority Leader Robert Ward, who refreshingly refuses to be pushed around by bully boys in the opposition party; 3) some liberal supporters of the legislation who continue to be torn by nagging doubts; 4) lobbyists who fear the legislation will make it less possible for them to put bread on the table and help send their sons and daughters to college; and, last but not least, 5) former governor and senator Lowell Weicker allied with Connecticut’s American Civil Liberties Union.

The good government legislation, it is safe to predict, will make for some very, very, very strange bedfellows.

Ironies abound. For instance, is it not odd to find Weicker at sword points with unions that stand to benefit from the legislation, if only by hobbling business interests? As governor, Weicker was unusually friendly toward unions. The former governor has said that his opposition is narrowly focused upon one point only. The legislation would, according to the Weickerian view, make it less possible for third parties to prevail in elections. “No Man But Yours” and political parties have never mixed well. Weicker make his reputation early on by bucking Republicans, a strategy that served him in good stead throughout his career. On the other hand, the state’s most successful lobbyist was at one time closely affiliated with Weicker: Jay Malcynsky surely would not wish to restrain his old friend and former boss from filing suits that will directly benefit both him and fellow toilers in the legislature’s vineyard.

The suit promised by the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union rests upon a decision made by the Supreme Court in a case brought forward by Weicker’s old nemesis, the Buckley clan. In Buckley v Valeo, the court ruled that “limitations on campaign expenditures, on independent expenditures by individuals and groups, and on expenditures by a candidate from his personal funds are constitutionally infirm,” which means it is constitutionally dicey to prohibit the expenditure of funds provided by political action committees and others to favored politicians. So, the sword point of Weicker’s prosecutorial thrust was fashioned in the smithy of National Review magazine by, among others, William F Buckley, brother of Jim Buckley, a true Jeffersonian rebel. Despite Weicker’s claim that his focus is narrow and he is not interested in securing the prosperity of lobbyists, the Weicker/CCLU suit will sweep the whole bill into the dust bin of history. As a lawyer, Weicker is well aware that courts are not adept at saving the baby when they toss out the wash water.

At this point, no one knows what the Supreme Court will make of Connecticut’s efforts, the most aggressive in the nation, to clean its house of corrupt influences. A court that paid close attention in its decisions to what has been called original intent likely would be inclined to permit most of the proposed reforms, unless they violate the letter of the Constitution. The Supreme Court, lately tacking in a conservative direction, has been permitting state legislatures a wide door of liberty. It is yet another irony that a conservative court, hewing to conservative principles, would be more likely than a liberal court to uphold such far reaching campaign finance reforms.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Shame Me Twice, Shame on Me: Rell, Democrats and Unions

In announcing her veto of a Clean Contracting Bill that contained, as Republicans believe, a legislative “rat” contrived by Democrats to aid unions and sink the bill, Gov. Jodi Rell brought to a press conference two “disabled” Connecticut citizens who stood beside her as she made her remarks. The presence of the two mentally retarded citizens caused a certain amount of discomfort among leading Democrats.

Democrats had smuggled into their Clean Contracting Bill a provision triggering an audit whenever the state enters into a contract worth more than $500,000 and seeks to privatize services that are “substantially similar to, and in lieu of services provided by employees of the particular state agency.” Viewing the provision as a legislative raid on executive powers, the governor vetoed the bill.

Rep. Christopher Caruso, who has gained a reputation as an ardent Democrat proponent of campaign finance reform, asserted that the two retarded citizens had been used – one might almost say “abused” – as props. Mr. Caruso said, “To use mentally retarded clients at a political event - and that's what it is - is shameless. Have we no decency? Using the mentally retarded that way is cruel and wrong. I'm sorry.”

Through a spokesperson, Rell answered, “The parents, the clients, and the providers were the faces of those who would be the most adversely affected by the legislation the governor vetoed. They wanted to be there. They wanted to be seen and heard and wanted the governor to veto that bill.”

Republican leader Robert Ward said he was shocked “that the Democratic leaders believe retarded citizens should be hidden from public view. The Democrats have become arrogant. These charges are just another example of that.”

Republicans did not insist that the noble sentiments expressed by President Pro Tem of the Senate Donald Williams and Mr. Caruso concerning the shameless use of the disabled should guide Democrats the next time a strike is declared at a nursing home and unionized workers leave their abandoned and vulnerable charges at the mercy of non-unionized temporary workers called in to tend to their needs.

The pursuit of the moral high ground, especially as a prelude to a campaign in which Democrats hope to unhorse a Republican governor, is always highly entertaining. But the closet “debate” on The Clean Contracting Bill, such as it was, missed the target.

Relative to other states, Connecticut is permanently stuck in economic doldrums. The national economy easily shook off the last recession several years ago; Connecticut has not. Among fifty states, recent studies show, Connecticut is dead last in job production, and the state is losing its entrepreneurial talent to other states that, many economists feel, are more hospitable to business interests.

What measures do the governor and state legislators intend to take to restore Connecticut’s once competitive and now flagging position in the global economy? And, more importantly, how are prospective new industries likely to view Connecticut’s struggle – assuming there is to be a struggle – to hoist itself up from last place by its own bootstraps? These are question that should be constantly in the minds legislators charged with crafting bills to solve one or another of the state’s myriad problems. Not only in politics is it true that perceptions are sometimes more important than realities; the maxim is doubly true in the marketplace.

The eyes of the world and of other states are on us. What have those eyes seen so far? Following the institution of a new income tax, they’ve witnessed a doubling of the state’s budget, which means a doubling of state spending, and a shift in collections from consumer sales taxes to less business friendly income taxes that drive up wages. Even the father of the state income tax, former senator and governor Lowell Weicker, emerged from obscurity a little over a year ago to register his dismay that legislators had so quickly consumed their new financial resources.

“Where did it all go?” an astonished Weicker asked.

Viewed against the backdrop of steadily increasing taxes and spending, every straw may be seen as breaking the camel’s back – including the provision of a Clean Contracting Bill that will make it less possible for Connecticut governors to reign in spending by challenging the political dominance of unions in the public arena. The eyes upon us are certain to see the Democratic legislature’s political favors for state unions as yet another nail in Connecticut’s coffin.