News & Views from 465 California Street

The Obama Revolt

Clint Reilly

The success of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign can be explained as a partnership between a great candidate and an idea whose time has come. The winning idea is simple: democratic government has cracked beneath the weight of special interest money.

Many average American citizens have decided to fight back via Obama’s candidacy, fueling his campaign with $32 million in January alone. With their relatively small donations, they are storming the barricades in protest against the special interest campaign dollars flooding government at every level – local, state and federal.

It has been difficult to stem the tide of special interest money because it takes so many shadowy forms. Much has been written about special interest contributions to political campaigns. Now they have invented new ways to influence the democratic process, such as independent campaign expenditures, expensive trips lavished upon public officials and the illicit use of charities and nonprofit organizations for political purposes.

The rise of independent campaign expenditures in California was the subject of a recent San Francisco Chronicle story by journalist Erin McCormick. McCormick pointed out that contributions to state legislative campaigns were capped at $3,600 per election by Proposition 34 in 2000. Undeterred, special interest groups now fund their own independent campaigns for or against candidates and spend unlimited amounts.

Independent expenditures have grown 2,700 percent since Proposition 34 was passed. In a classic act of chutzpah, former State Senate Pro Tem John L. Burton expressed his dismay at the practice in McCormick’s article. “It’s just a screwed deal,” he said. “There’s always a way to get around limits.”

While wiping away crocodile tears, Burton forgot to mention his connection to a notorious independent expenditure campaign waged during a 2006 California Assembly race. In that race, $800,000 in independent expenditures was paid out of a secret slush fund Burton had accumulated during his years as senate leader.

Another recent Chronicle article by McCormick tackled travel expenses: “California State Legislators spent nearly $700,000 in donations from corporations and special interests within the past three years to pay for international junkets, meals and lodging at domestic resorts and for entertainment and gifts.” Will a Sacramento “Travelgate” scandal further erode public confidence in the legislative process?

Special interests have long curried politicians’ favor with gifts. Sherman Adams, Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff, caused a stir and ultimately resigned after accepting a vicuña overcoat from a Boston textile manufacturer. An LA Times exposé revealed Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez’s Paris spending spree on Louis Vuitton bags and fine wines paid for with special interest money. Is it any surprise that California voters defeated a term limit reform initiative this month?

Reformers have also started to focus on a little-scrutinized practice with grave implications: politicians have begun to invade the sacred ground of nonprofit and charitable institutions for political purposes. Because charitable contributions are hidden from public review by law, public interest advocates worry that lobbyists are currying favor through non-disclosed contributions to politicians’ “charitable foundations.”

Rick Cohen, Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, has written a scathing indictment of what he calls “political philanthropy.” Cohen claims that these foundations arrange charitable contributions that are really intended to buy political influence. He cites University of Miami Law Professor Fran Hill’s condemnation of politicians’ foundations: “The nonprofit form is being abused to engage in transactions for influence that the parties would not want the public to know about. It breeds cynicism that undermines democracy.”

Lobbyists have become the scheming villains of the 2008 campaign narrative. Barack Obama has hoisted their severed heads at thronged rallies. America cheers.

Comments (7)

  • Even if a “freshly” elected President comes into office, how does he or she reverse this newly adopted way of doing politics that has evolved for quite some time now? A similar culture has evolved in the Big Chemical and Big Oil Industry where it seems the EPA is merely a minion of special interest money and influence.

    But to remain on topic, can a Barack Obama curb the shady practices that have made their way so deeply into the American system of democratic politics tainted by money?

    My faith is in Hillary. I have a gut instinct that she has the conviction and fortitude (“intestinal” and mental) to stand up against the shady ongoings that she deplores within the highest levels of Washington. Mrs. Clinton (as well as Bill) has shown she can hang tough and firm amidst turmoil and controversy dished out by her rivals and political foes. The concern is to what lengths will she have to sell part of her soul to achieve a greater good or outcome for the masses. All great leaders must make sacrifices to achieve a greater end. Toughness is without a doubt a vital prerequisite.

    Barack Obama has not seen the worst thrown at him yet. If he is to have what it truly takes, like few others, he will have to develop that “thousand yard stare” (…and glare i might add). The same stare (…and glare) Hillary already has.

    I’d like to add that if this Hillary/Barack Dems battle gets uglier, Repub Senator John McCain (who has given so much to OperationSmile which benefits children with cleft chins and facial deformities) might “steal” this next Presidency. If that proves to be the case, let’s pray it won’t be like the current disappointment.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 19th, 2008 at 11:04 am

  • BTW, that article on Cal State legislators spending corporate donations on green fees and gambling is just one prime example of why working or middle-class Joe Taxpayer is fed up with American politics today.

    It’s stuff like this that make a twilight rate golfer want to just vote a Barack Obama in.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 19th, 2008 at 2:37 pm

  • Obama Revolt indeed! People are so sick of what our politics have become. I think they want a few things after the past 8 years: competence, some solutions and a clear break from our “long national nightmare part deux.” Obama represents that.

    Nevertheless, President Obama isn’t going to fix the cesspool of California campaign finance. We need something done NOW. Scrap all of the limits if that’s what it takes, but we’ve got to get these donors out in the open where we can see them.

    Posted by: Jackson | February 19th, 2008 at 5:09 pm

  • Barack Obama clearly is the inspirational “Mr. Congeniality” candidate in these ’08 primaries. The general election might come down to “likability”, which Hillary seems to not have enough of in these primaries. Bill Clinton was very “likable”.

    Hillary needs to start talking like Barack and Bill Clinton, connecting with the voters in a more down-to-earth, likable way. The “i feel your pain” strategy should be implemented again instead of this micro-approach speech of issues.

    Cleary this election is about transformation. Change. It is also a Revolt against the current administration and its failed policies.

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 20th, 2008 at 9:22 am

  • Anybody who doesn’t realize Hillary is, as they say in the Big House, walking dead just hasn’t been paying attention to the last ten primaries. As Obama’s boilerplate rhetoric — “We must go forward, not back” — comes under closer scrutiny and his wife continues to reveal radical leftist views, look for the rapture to slowly dissipate as the balloon returns to earth.

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | February 20th, 2008 at 4:48 pm

  • Clint:
    Your comments are right on the money and very well put. At the very least this neck in neck race for the Democratic nomination is mobilizing the electorate, hopefully to bring about much needed changes, particularly with regard to international politics.

    Posted by: Anne Lawrence | February 20th, 2008 at 6:41 pm

  • Democratic Debate in Texas tonight which might tip the scales and be the turning point in the Democratic race:

    CNN (HD available) 8pm Eastern Time

    Posted by: Don Nguyen | February 21st, 2008 at 9:52 am

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