Fundraising Pressures Take A Toll On Pols

<p>A retiring Congressman calls fundraisers nothing more than "panhandling with hors d'oeuvres."</p>

$10,000 a day every day for six years. 

Do the math—it comes to just under $22 million.

Those numbers have stayed with me since 1995, when I was an ABC 7 political reporter covering an unexpected announcement by then U.S. Senator Paul Simon that he wouldn’t be running for a third term the following year.    

The popular Downstate liberal with the trademark bow tie, coke bottle glasses and mellifluous baritone was talking about how much money a senator from a big state like Illinois, with an expensive media market like Chicago, had to raise every day of a six-year term to bankroll the next $20 million-plus campaign.

Simon was a policy wonk—a good government advocate who cared deeply about issues—and when his preternatural distaste for fundraising finally reached a breaking point he called it quits.

Over and out.

Those details, still fresh 21 years later, came to mind recently as I was perusing a provocative guest column in a New York newspaper by Congressman Steve Israel, who’s retiring after representing a New York district since 2000.


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His catchy opening: “It’s now safe to pick up your phones and read your emails. That’s right, I won’t be calling to ask you to donate to my campaign.”

Israel explains that he’ll “be leaving Congress at the end of this term…liberated from a fundraising regime that’s never been more dangerous to our democracy.”

He estimates he spent 4,200 hours “dialing for dollars,” held 1,600 fundraisers and collected nearly $20 million in donations. 

 He calls the fundraisers “panhandling with hors d’oeuvres.”

Ouch. 

Not surprisingly, Israel supports major changes in campaign finance rules—a daunting challenge in our mostly unregulated post-Citizens United political landscape.

He’s urging President Obama to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending, he favors public financing of Congressional campaigns, and he wants to require “who-gives-what” disclosure transparency in real time.

The President’s considering executive action, but the other reforms require Congressional approval, and they’re non-starters with the Republicans who control the House and Senate.

That troubles Chicagoan Michael Golden, a former broadcast journalist and political strategist who published a fix-it book last year titled “Unlock Congress.”

Golden’s plan for ending gridlock and polarization, and making Congress more effective, includes “rebalancing campaign finance rules” to decrease the disproportionate influence of what he calls “the money flood.”

He endorses Rep. Israel’s proposals, along with changes the Better Government Association supports in Illinois, including public dollars to match small donations and to help candidates who voluntarily limit their fundraising and campaign spending.

The General Assembly may consider those “small ball” reforms again this year, but it won’t affect Republican Governor Bruce Rauner or his Democratic opponents, who continue to raise staggering sums of money in their battle for control of the legislature.

Their collective war chests are north of $30 million.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of Illinois lawmakers have also been calling it quits in recent years, and one reason may be that, like Paul Simon and Steve Israel, they’re tired of spending so much time filling their campaign coffers instead of confronting the problems we elected them to solve.

If so, it’s another troubling symptom of our ailing democracy, and more motivation for good government advocates to find new ways to level the playing field so serious lawmakers don’t bail simply because cash is king.