News Section: Opinion
This week's District 13 Congressional race was just the latest example of how badly our democratic process has been corrupted by special interests. With nowhere else to spend, big money donors from both sides of the aisle rained down cash on the horse their party was riding. Regardless of what impact it may or may not have had on the outcome, the undeniable reality is that the process itself was stolen from the candidates and waged as a sort of proxy war between competing forces based thousands of miles away.
This is not the way elections are supposed to work. Almost $9 million dollars in outside money poured into Pinellas County in the 90-day run-up to Tuesday's election according to the Center for Responsive Politics, nearly triple the already considerable amount of money the candidates themselves had spent. The PACs that bought up all of the air time, paid for all of the robo-calls and carpet bombed residents with direct mail pieces weren't part of a candidate's campaign. In fact, it's illegal for the candidates or their staff to coordinate with them to any degree.
All of the recent so-called “reforms” and court rulings in campaign finance have had one thing in common: they've made it easier for special interests to not only spend whatever they want, but to actually run their own campaigns – much bigger and more expensive ones at that – without having to even worry about whether the candidate approves of their strategy or message.
Ever since Citizens United, it seems that deep-pocketed sugar daddies are asking themselves why write out checks to a candidate and trust them with it, when they can run their own shadow campaigns right alongside the candidate's with the volume turned up high enough to ensure that it's their message that's being heard.
This separation has undoubtedly given cover to candidates whose supporters can run sleazy attack campaigns while they plead innocence, but it also means that a candidate ultimately has less control over what gets communicated to voters. Special interests don't really care what a candidate is all about. They've cut their deals higher up the food chain and are simply interested in making sure there are enough R's or D's for the party bosses to successfully whip the vote when the time comes for their pet issues to roll on down the gravy train.
It is not only national elections that have been hijacked by the fat cats in the expensive suits. As we saw last week, state Senator Bill Galvano's PAC has raised nearly a million dollars already and he doesn't even have an election until 2016. Getting rid of CCEs was supposed to give voters more transparency, but it's also made it easier for candidates to accumulate even larger war chests. What message does that send to potential opponents who might wish to give Manatee County a viable alternative in terms of representing them in Tallahassee? Simple: Don't bother trying.
In 2012, we saw local developers like Carlos Beruff spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on murky shadow campaigns to ensure that even a government body as local as the county commission was for the most part closed to those who haven't been anointed by the growth at all costs crowd. Even the school board hasn't been immune to special interest politics, with PACs spending money to ensure that candidates who might be in position to steer some spending in the right direction get a taste of the green.
How much impact all of that money had on Tuesday's results is hard to say. Personally, I'm not sure it impacted the winner in the race between Sink and Jolly. I've never been impressed by Alex Sink, who strikes too many people as a petulant and bossy opportunist willing to toe the party line in exchange for their continued support in elevating her career. In the Bay News 9 debate, Jolly was able to rattle Sink's cage, while also offering answers that seemed much less like canned talking points. Jolly's been called an empty suit and that may well be the case, but if it is, what does that say about Sink, the candidate the Dems have poured all of that dough into time and again?
However, Sink's very presence in that race speaks to the influence outside money has had on shaping races even before they begin. The former banker didn't even live in District 13 when she pushed St. Pete attorney Jessica Ehrlich out of the race by making it clear that the DNC money would be lined up behind her – just the way she did to Bud Chiles with the 2010 gubernatorial election.
In both cases, the Democratic machine convinced its power-brokers that any money which might be spent in a primary was simply wasted ammunition better directed toward the real enemy, who they'd need full bank accounts to battle in a general election. The best trick either party has been able to pull on their loyal voters is to convince them that having a choice greater than Coke or Pepsi isn't in their best interest, that to have real choice is akin to certain failure.
The best news on Tuesday may have been 27 year-old Libertarian Lucas Overby getting just under 5 percent of the vote after raising just over $30,000, without any of the outside money the two establishment candidates benefited from. Overby handled himself with impressive grit on the campaign trail and articulated his message at least as well as his two more-experienced opponents in that same debate.
On a vote-per-dollar basis, Overby creamed both Sink and Jolly. It's sad that 5 percent seems like something to get excited about, but it signals that at least some voters are tuning out the special interest noise and opening their minds to possibilities that extend beyond the status quo. Getting money out of politics might not happen anytime soon, but perhaps the whole monument of excess will implode by convincing voters that the only way to beat the fat cats who've hijacked their democracy is to ignore both them and the candidates they roll with.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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