Not Eudora  By Harry Welty
Published Feb. 21, 2002

The editors are not sold on my suggestion for a column title. Iím not related to Eudora Welty, the short story writer, and she didnít care a whit about politics so this is definitely not Eudora. Weigh in if you have a better suggestion for a title. Email harrywelty@snowbizz.com

 Sour Milk

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 overwhelming.

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 the wood.

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.

Welty 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.