Monday, June 27, 2005

Campaign Finance Reform Connecticut Style

In a letter addressed to legislative leaders, Gov. Jodi Rell, finding herself in a non-combative, compromising mood, asked that a bipartisan committee of 12 lawmakers be convened to reach consensus on campaign finance reform. The question arises: What is the likelihood that such a committee will report out a plan that will both satisfy all the parties concerned and reform a process that has led to the imprisonment of a couple of mayors and a governor?

There are two kinds of campaign reform. There is a reform that will change the nature of campaigns, now weighted heavily in favor of incumbents; and there is a reform that will leave the disposition of power and forces much as it was when former Governor Rowland – and who knows how many other high government officials – fended off all serious political challenges while collecting favors from people his office was in a position to benefit.

The true test of successful campaign reform should be reflected in the turnover of incumbents. Any campaign reform that reinforces the status quo ante is, by definition, not reform. After all the pulling and pushing, if the percentage of incumbents returned to office remains nearly the same as it has been since Gov. Jodi Rell was knee high to a toadstool, the reforms proposed by this governor and legislature will have failed.

The mere suggestion that some reforms may reduce the overwhelming advantages enjoyed by incumbents has many legislators in a tizzy, even though it is unlikely that any or all of the reforms proposed thus far will even the playing field between challengers and what is becoming, both in Connecticut and the nation, the permanent government. If the most stringent reforms so far proposed were to be enacted, not many incumbent legislators will lose their seats.

For instance, none of the reforms will affect the composition of Senate and House districts. Over a long period of time, Republican and Democrat incumbents have gerrymandered districts to insure what they consider a fair balance between the parties. But in the lexicon of incumbents, “fair balance” means that no changes in the composition of districts must be permitted to disturb present arrangements.

None of the reforms proposed thus far is likely to result in a money advantage for challengers; and, as everyone knows, challengers must have a money advantage in campaigns to unseat incumbents -- because an excess of money for challengers tends to even campaign scales imbalanced by other advantages enjoyed by incumbents.

The notion that a race between a hare and a tortoise would be “equal” if both contestants started from the same line is a fantasy that can only delight the hare and depress the tortoise. So too is the notion that “equalizing” campaign financing will result in a fair race between incumbents and challengers. At best, the reforms being proposed would equalize campaign financing and therefore throw the race to incumbents.

And it is not likely reforms will be adopted that will provide even minimal equality. Political watchers familiar with reforms in other states that were greeted when first proposed with hosannas of approval but failed in their purpose are wondering what all the fuss is about. Some incumbents are reacting to the reforms as if they were being invited to stretch their necks on the execution block.

Sen. Gary LeBeau of East Hartford gave the game away when he said during a floor debate on reform, "There are real fears that are associated with this bill - our own re-election."

LeBeau meant that incumbent mice were afraid they would lose their sinecures if someone took their add books away from them.

Be not afraid. These fears are largely illusory. Campaign reform measures presently being debated in Connecticut have worked in other states to even the playing field between incumbents and challengers only when the reforms have been implemented in conjunction with term limits. Never-the-less, the proposed reforms have spooked some incumbents who are unwilling to surrender the slightest of their advantages and prefer the illusion of reform to real reform.

Embarrassingly for Democrats, the Republican governor, now snorting and pawing the ground in hopes that golden boy Attorney General Richard Blumenthal will enter the political bull ring, has stolen the Democrats campaign financing bauble -- and they just do not know what to do about it.

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