Common Cause raises concerns about money and influence in politics

May 7, 2013

On May 1, Common Cause began an effort to build local interest in the organization, inviting the public to a meeting at Fish On in Lewes. About 50 people attended.

It was nearly cancelled. The scheduled speaker, Bob Edgar, Common Cause’s national president, died of a heart attack the week before at his home in Virginia.

“But,” said Jan Konesey, a board member who helped organize the event, “we determined that was not what Bob would have wanted … One of Bob’s goals was to rebuild the state organizations.”

Common Cause is a non-partisan, grassroots organization that serves as a government watchdog. Its heyday in Delaware began shortly after it was founded in 1972. Common Cause helped pass the state’s first campaign finance law in 1974 and the Freedom of Information Act in 1976.

Regional Director James Browning stepped in to talk about the organization’s most recent issue, money and politics. Common Cause released a report last week about the top political donors in Delaware.

(Common Cause wound up having to retract figures for AstraZeneca’s donations because of mistakes. It released a corrected report the next day.)

Depending upon your level of cynicism, the results may surprise you. You may think, for example, that political donations are all about winning elections.

That’s not necessarily so, according to Browning. Opponents of campaign finance reform often equate money with speech and say that if you limit people’s ability to donate money to politicians “you are trampling on their First Amendment rights,” Browning said. You are interfering with elections and democracy itself.

But Browning said many of the donations are not election-related. Some big donors give to both parties, he said, sometimes on the same day.

From 2007 through 2012, according to the report, the Delaware Racing Association, which owns the Delaware Park racetrack and casino, gave $31,000 to the state Democratic committee and $23,000 to the Republican committee.

“When you see that,” Browning said, “you realize this is not about winning elections. This is about buying access and influence.”

“It’s a very cynical strategy,” he said. “We need to expose it and challenge it and ask what is going on.”

For an issue that strikes closer to home for many Sussex Countians, Browning cited the case of First State Manufactured Housing. The largest donor listed on Common Cause’s report, First State has worked against bills that would force mobile home park owners to justify lot rent increases.

According to the report, there is a correlation between money donated to politicians and how they voted on Senate Bill 205, which would have required park owners, before they raised rents more than the cost of living, to “seek approval of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Manufactured Housing.” (For more on this particular issue, see the May 3 Cape Gazette.)

Browning related one particularly telling story about how donors and lobbyists influence legislators.

About three years ago, he said, he spoke with former Delaware House Speaker Robert Gilligan. Citing the need to strengthen some of the good-government laws passed during the ‘70s and ‘80s, Browning asked Gilligan what he considered the most effective recent legislative reform.

“He thought about it,” Browning said, “and he said to me ‘I thought the drunk driving laws were pretty good.’”

Browning said he didn’t understand. Anti-drunk driving laws were certainly a good idea, but he didn’t see the connection with government reform.

“His point was that, more than anything, those laws forced people [politicians] from being entertained by the lobbyists, and to go home,” Browning said.

I suppose Gilligan’s right. Having legislators enjoy less wining and dining with lobbyists probably does lead to better government, but Common Cause is aiming for more concrete changes.

One reform advocated by Common Cause would take politicians out of redistricting, which takes place every 10 years after the census. Browning credited Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, Delaware’s current House speaker, with running a fair process, but Browning said the system would be better if redistricting were handled by appointed citizens.

What’s happened across the country, Browning said, is that gerrymandering - the extreme drawing of districts to favor one party or the other – has made many electoral contests uncompetitive.

The result, he said, is that the middle of the electorate has been taken out of the political equation, leaving the more extreme elements of both parties in control.

We should be choosing who represents us, Browning said, but more and more it’s the politicians - through gerrymandering - who are choosing us.

For more information about the organization and its recent report on money and politics, go to the Common Cause Delaware website.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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