By Harry Welty
Compared to the vast sums of money it takes to elect
politicians on the national level the funds raised locally seem laughably small.
That is until you try to raise your first thousand dollars. Yes, even at ground
level money is the motherís milk of politics. Just look at the infamous example of the Duluth Chamber of
Commerce PAC. Recent stories have exposed its spending in last yearís city
council races. City Councilor Greg Gilbert was the chief target of its vigorous
if inept campaign. Now, quite correctly, Mr. Gilbert has cautioned voters to
look carefully at the motivation of the people who contribute money.
I know something of this motherís milk. After the 1999
elections I too pointed my finger at soft money contributions only the villains
in my story were Duluthís labor unions. They poured unprecedented sums into
our usually sleepy school board election turning it into a $63,000 slugfest.
Union backed candidates outspent business backed candidates by two to one. The
Duluth Federation of Teachers alone spent $11,000.
When the unionís soft money steamroller headed my way I
was grateful for the soft money contributed to my side. Though my allies and I
only raised half as much money as the union-backed candidates we, like Greg
Gilbert, mostly survived the onslaught. There is an important lesson to be
learned from this. Money isnít everything even though at times it can seem
In 1982 Minnesotaís Mark Dayton was busy spending his
fortune in a campaign for the US Senate. I remember being in the offices of the
Duluth Budgeteer when a car drove up and its driver hand delivered a glossy 8 x
10 photo of Mark Dayton to the paperís editor, Dick Palmer. Dayton had called
the Budgeteer earlier that day to ask if it was going to run a story about his
campaign. Palmer had demurred because he didnít have a photograph of Dayton.
Mark took care of that objection by dispatching a campaign aide on a 300-mile,
round trip, journey to deliver one lousy photo. It was a small extravagance for
a man who went on to spend seven million dollars of his own money to win
elective office. Only Dayton didnít win Ė at least not that time. Motherís
milk can sour.
Something other than money is at work during elections.
Itís the voters! As long as they know where the money is coming from they can
do their work.
I certainly canít object to the Chamber PAC, or unions, or golf developers for that matter, trying to win over public opinion or elect sympathetic candidates to public office. Like everyone else they have a big stake in the decisions public office holders make. Whatever else the campaign laws do they must guarantee that campaign spending is out in the open.
The Chamber has been unapologetic about its new aggressive
style and I, for one, do not begrudge the Chamber PAC its newfound piss and
vinegar. This is quite a change for the Chamber. Until recently the Duluth
business community lived by Maoís slogan, ďthe nail that sticks out is the
first to be hammered down.Ē Todayís Chamber is practically jumping out of
However menacing some people find this new Chamber they can
take heart that it has not entirely abandoned its safe and fussy approach to
politics. They like winners. While their PAC has supported me twice as a school
board candidate they knew better than to abandon Senator Doug Johnson when I
playfully challenged him two years ago. Dougís seniority loomed too large for
them to exchange Doug for anything as insubstantial as charm and whimsy.
Furthermore, in honor of the old bedfellow metaphor, the Chamber has joined
forces with Duluthís labor unions in recent elections. Just last month they
were joined by the building trade unions, among others, in supporting Yvonne
Prettner-Solon in the race for her late husbandís seat. (Yvonne was unable to win the endorsement of the entire Central Labor Body. The
Public Employeeís Union, which has begun aligning itself with the Green Party,
put a stop to this endorsement.)
This potent if temporary alliance has shifted the balance in local politics. According to Joel Sipress, who ran strongly against Prettner-Solon, his Green Party has now replaced the Republicans as Duluthís number two party. It will take a new round of elections to show whether this is wishful thinking or not. As long as there is public disclosure of campaign donations Duluth should survive.
is a small time politician who lets it all hang out at: www.snowbizz.com
One way or another money will continue to find its way into politics. My column pooh pooh's its influence at the local level. Robert Samuelson, a thoughtful Newsweek Economic's columnist, explains why he's unimpressed with the proposed national campaign finance reform bill.
Anyone who thinks Samuelson is a right wing ideologue for
opposing campaign finance reform should read his
thoughts on farm subsidies.