Price-Fighting Politicians

We recently got a lesson in how money corrupts politics, courtesy of a governor in a state where corporate cash is tipping a historical balance.

And this column isn’t even about Wisconsin, where Sheldon Adelson put himself on the winning side for once by ponying up $25,000 to Gov. Scott Walker.

In a recent New York Times op-ed piece, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer explained how his state had kept corporate money—even big money from individuals—out of politics for a century, thanks to a ballot initiative. For this reason, Montana is now fighting the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2010 Citizens United decision, which would undermine the state’s restraints on campaign finance.

Schweitzer explains why Montana acted more than 100 years ago: “Montana’s approach to campaign law began when a miner named William A. Clark came upon a massive copper vein near Butte …. He bought up half the state … and if he needed favors from politicians, he bought those as well.” When he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1899, “Clark simply gave each corruptible state legislator $10,000 in cash,” since legislatures then elected senators. (A large number of right-wingers want to go back to that system because they think the change corrupted politics; they don’t know much history).

When Clark won, the Senate wouldn’t seat him. “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” Clark replied.

Clark’s name should be familiar to Southern Nevadans. Ever hear of Clark County, Nevada? William Clark co-owned the railroad that gave birth to the town of Las Vegas. The county is named for him—the Legislature agreed to its creation in 1909, reportedly in exchange for a well-distributed case of whiskey.

While Clark was buying Montana’s Legislature, Nevada lawmakers reelected Sen. William Stewart. He and his opponent were tied until one of the opponent’s supporters disappeared. One report claimed Stewart’s pals kidnapped him. Another said his checking account grew.

By then, Nevada had passed campaign finance reform in response to earlier abuses. Later, during the Progressive reforms, Nevada started a preferential vote in Senate races, and legislators were expected to heed the public will. These reforms fell short of Montana’s limits on contributions and reporting requirements, but it became much more difficult to buy an office.

Recent developments, though, suggest that those reforms are largely forgotten. Assembly Republican leader Pat Hickey of Reno has proposed campaign finance reforms, including more frequent and transparent reporting of contributions and lobbyist spending. Hickey also wants a cooling-off period between serving as a legislator and a lobbyist, and limits on campaign contributions.

No sooner did Hickey make these worthwhile suggestions than a couple of prominent Nevadans wound up in federal hot water. Doug Hampton may face a year in prison and a $100,000 fine for violating the federal cooling-off period. The Times summarized his plight nicely: He “pleaded guilty to a charge of illegal lobbying in a scandal that left him in bankruptcy, ended his marriage and forced [John] Ensign to resign his Senate seat last year under threat of expulsion by fellow senators.” The article noted that “legal and political observers [were] befuddled” at how Ensign simply came home and resumed worming cats at a veterinary practice while Hampton went from cuckolded lobbyist to pariah.

On the same day, longtime Nevada power-broker Harvey Whittemore pleaded not guilty to illegally packaging campaign contributions and lying to the FBI and the Federal Election Commission about it. Many Nevada politicos have been quick to shake their heads at Whittemore’s fall from power and grace, though it begs the question of why they lacked the guts to wag their fingers at him back when he was a kingmaker.

All of this reminds us that money always has been—and always will be—at the center of politics. The question is how enlightened and determined the public is to make sure it doesn’t corrupt the process. Given what Ensign and Hampton did, and what Whittemore is accused of doing, old Sen. Clark may be smiling. Not only are some people for sale; too many others just don’t care.

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