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Yes, I was influenced by campaign money

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published April 2, 2016

On Monday, I put on a tie and went to a lawyer's office to testify under oath about my own tendency as a politician to be influenced by campaign contributions.

It felt fun and subversive, but the topic is as important as the integrity of our democracy. A suit brought by Republicans to strike down parts of Alaska's campaign finance law rests on the idea that $1,000 contributions can't buy politicians' votes.

It's weird that the courts need to be informed of something that everyone knows — that money drives politics — but this was the second time I was called upon to tell on myself.

The first time happened in the 1990s, when, still in my 30s, I served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. I was known as an insufferable goody-goody by my colleagues. Only after they administered a rough and unpleasant political punishment in my first term did I learn to shut up, stop lecturing them about ethics and play the game.

But in 1998, I had the opportunity to talk to a more important audience. My topic, oddly enough, was my own imperfection.

Attorney Jon Rubini, representing the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, was challenging state campaign finance limits, which the Alaska Legislature had passed in 1996 after being forced to do so by a successful initiative petition. Rubini's central point was that no one could prove that contributions changed votes.

The state attorneys defending the law went looking for that proof, and it wasn't easy. Who wants to finger themselves for doing something wrong? Gov. Jay Hammond submitted an affidavit saying he had been influenced by bending backward to avoid helping contributors. Former Rep. David Finkelstein, who had fought hard for the campaign finance law, said he had been influenced on some minor votes.

I was the only sitting politician who would step up and state the obvious. I wrote an affidavit saying it was impossible to dissect my own motivations when facing major campaign contributors as I voted on complex issues hardly anyone else cared about.

I wrote to the court that "I also have become disillusioned with a process in which campaign money often seems to mean more to decisions than debate, deliberation and the public good. In this environment, the efforts of a single person making a great effort not to be improperly influenced by campaign contributions sometimes seems pointless to me."

That was about the time I decided not to run for re-election. I didn't want to be the person who didn't care anymore.

The district court overturned the law but, a year later, the Alaska Supreme Court upheld it. My affidavit was quoted at length in its decision. That might have been my most important accomplishment in six years as a politician.

The Republican group challenging the law this time is using the new standards created by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case and other rulings. Now the state may need to prove actual corruption or the appearance of it in specific actions to keep the limits at $500 instead of $1,000, and to maintain limits on out-of-state contributions and other rules.

I will testify in the trial next month and I was deposed Monday by Kevin Clarkson, attorney for the plaintiffs, in his office. Although my service was two decades ago, the shock of seeing the legalized corruption in politics fixed it in my memory well enough to give some specific examples, which I wasn't asked for last time.

Clarkson asked if I had ever voted against my conscience in exchange for money. That question goes to the heart of what non-politicians don't understand about being in elected office.

No one goes against his or her conscience for a campaign contribution. Debates on the big, emotional issues are real.

But only a tiny percentage of the decisions politicians make are matters of conscience. Far more are about power and money — giving a company government business, increasing union salaries, changing tax rules, approving a zoning change, licensing a bar or other business, for example.

On these issues, the winner is the side that gives campaign contributions. There's a whole industry of lobbyists and other political operatives to make the system work. For a lot of business people, it's perceived as a protection racket. They don't want to give but feel they must. When I ran for re-election, I got contributions from people who hated my politics.

I cared as much about the honesty of the political system as anyone I knew. But I could feel my judgment bending.

Late on a random Tuesday night after voting on dozens of boring issues, one more comes up in Assembly Chambers. The room is empty except for the friendly face of the business person who gave you $1,000 when you desperately needed it. Your judgment on your next vote could credibly take you either way. No one but you will ever know about your qualms.

And, as a socially adept person, he's not going to rub your nose in it, either. The FBI videos of hotel room payoffs to legislators a decade ago were an aberration. Buying votes is usually subtle, polite and comfortable.

Human relationships are built on reciprocity. We're social beings and making truly disinterested judgments goes against our grain. Social scientists have shown how emotion comes first in decision-making and rationality comes afterwards to explain it. You don't have to be consciously dishonest to be bought. It's enough to be grateful.

The founders understood representative government wouldn't fill Congress with saints. James Madison noted in the Federalist Papers that men are not angels and that, in office, they would vote their own interests. The genius of the system he helped create was that the interests of the man would match the interests of his office and his constituents.

Campaign money perverts that system. It realigns the interests of the representative to the interests of his or her contributors. People understand that's why our government works so poorly and they are starting to rebel. I am testifying in hopes we can keep the problem from getting worse in Alaska.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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