'Patriot dollars' to reform politics

FinanceElectionsPolitical FundraisingPoliticsSocial IssuesCharityGovernment

We raised money -- $100 million over the last 17 years -- for candidates and ballot initiatives. Known as "fortune tellers," we "delivered" big bags of "doughnuts" (campaign contributions) to our clients -- sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. And as reformed sinners, we are here to tell you that the current system is not just broken, it is irrevocably broken.

Our typical day would include breakfast schmoozing, closing on a few donors by telephone, a VIP luncheon, a handful of private afternoon meetings, a meet 'n' greet cocktail party and then one or maybe even two splashy dinners. Capped off with a quickie late-night cigar or dessert reception.

Our money chase for contributions on behalf of clients was endless. Indeed, most politicians are in a state of perpetual campaigning or fundraising.

And big money is what mattered. The bigger the better. We had to decide: Should we spend two hours playing phone tag with high-maintenance, grass-roots, low-dollar donors on a "have previously given" list (the under $250 crowd)? Or should we hound-dog an hour of time with a wealthy, well-connected fat cat ("bundler") and his like-minded industry friends -- for $2,000 a pop -- at a $50,000 intimate lunch with a personal candidate photo included (a.k.a. "donor crack")? You guessed it. Time is money, and our 10% was on the line too.

Currently, any U.S. citizen may give up to $108,200 to all federal candidates and political party committees during a two-year cycle. It was our job to have as many of those rainmakers as possible in our golden Rolodex.

As a result, we and our clients ended up spending a lot of face time with major donors ("Mojo's"): Wall Street investment bankers, real estate developers, CEOs, trial lawyers, union bosses, oil company executives, Hollywood celebrities, PAC board members and K Street lobbyists. America the plutocracy.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, records were broken in the 2008 presidential and congressional campaigns: Direct fundraising by all the presidential candidates added up to more than $1.5 billion; in congressional races, $1.3 billion. Total contributions to the 2008 federal general elections, including those made to 527 groups and to the fundraising arms of the political parties, exceeded $6.3 billion.

That is a lot of doughnuts -- a system-distorting, potentially corrupting amount of cash. Let us rephrase that: It is a policy-corrupting amount of money.

And despite all efforts to reform the system, be they the post-Watergate era ones or the more recent McCain-Feingold reforms, campaign fundraising is like blowing up a balloon: You can squeeze the money coming from one direction, but it just pops out somewhere else. Thus, hard money begets soft money that begets party money that begets independent expenditure committee money.

And the great Internet myth circulating today says this is all changing, that online donors are democratizing the campaign finance system. They aren't. They are just putting a little more money into the system. The major donors are still the key to candidate survival.

The good news, though, is that American voters by a 3-1 margin think too much money is being spent on campaigns. A recent USA Today-Gallup Poll found that more than 70% of respondents favored some form of public financing of presidential campaigns.

So what can we do? The best solution we have heard of is called the "patriot dollars" plan, put forth by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres. Basically, it eliminates all hard contributions to candidates. Period. Instead, each voter is given a $50 ATM card so that he or she can literally vote with their dollars and contribute their $50, in part or in whole, to their choice of federal candidates. Simple enough. Let's do the math. We spend about $5 billion to $6 billion collectively on all federal elections. If the approximately 131 million who voted in November also had voted with $50 worth of patriot bucks, the donations would have equaled -- surprise -- $6.5 billion! That money would cover presidential, Senate and congressional races.

That would put us political consultants, err, fundraisers, out of a job, and quickly and simply revolutionize the gridlocked political system. Think of it: A level playing field where candidates actually would have to listen to their real voting constituents versus only listening to their wealthy donors, lobbyist friends and corporate givers.

As Bill Moyers has said, true campaign finance reform is the "reform that makes the other reforms finally possible." And now is the perfect time for that to happen.

Pamela Finmark and William D. Chalmers, recently retired political consultants/fundraisers, have worked on campaigns on the state and national level, including for presidential candidates.

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