Cook on Concord

Riding in my automobile the other day, I heard two stories on the radio in quick succession that raised the issue of money and politics.

The first was about House Speaker Gene Chandler and the investigation into his “corn roast” fund-raisers, which provided money for his support while he served the people of New Hampshire, money which he did not report, claiming that he had been advised he did not need to report it and which became the subject of an ongoing ethics investigation.

The second involved Republican Tom DeLay of Texas, majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. The story was to the effect that DeLay indicated he would fight ethics charges involving fund-raising. Certain members of the Republican caucus indicated they would “vote for DeLay as leader ‘even if he is under indictment.’”

Chandler is not a wealthy man. DeLay is not a wealthy man, but certainly is paid better than the $300 Chandler gets to be speaker in New Hampshire. Their fund-raising may or may not be a function of the need to have support while serving in important public positions, and certainly no one would excuse or countenance any violations of law — civil or criminal — or of the ethical standards of their respective legislative bodies. However, the need to be supported while serving in office creates a quandary for many who consider running for public office, and perhaps Chandler and DeLay are examples of that.

It is interesting that supporters use the premise of “innocent until proven guilty,” a criminal law standard, in discussing ethical matters involving leadership and example. Whether this irony and inconsistency is lost on everyone but me is something I considered as I drove along, the commentator saying nothing about it.

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The recent gubernatorial campaign in New Hampshire indicated several things about politics and money as well. Both candidates, winner John Lynch, the Democrat, and loser, Craig Benson, the Republican, spent millions of dollars of their own money to seek an office that has relatively little power, a two-year term and a low salary, which Benson had given up entirely.

Benson reportedly lent or contributed $3.5 million to his campaign in 2004, between a quarter and a third of the $12 million he spent in 2002. If these figures are correct, and if I can calculate it properly, Benson spent $17,099.86 per day to be governor!

Lynch, on the other hand, reportedly spent $2.1 million of his own money, or $2,876.71 per day, if he gets only one two-year term. He may get more “bang for the buck” if he is re-elected with less of a contribution personally next time!

None of these calculations or statements is a criticism of either Lynch or Benson for funding a campaign in which they believed, although the extraordinary amount of money that Benson spent certainly causes pause when considering whether such massive contributions can be the equivalent of purchasing an office.

There are more fundamental ramifications that come to mind.

First, are we in a situation in which only the wealthy can run for office? If so, what does that say about the people we get? There could be some good things about it. Wealthy people are not subject to distractions or influence by others with money — the concern expressed in the DeLay and Chandler situations, at least by some. Second, if people are “self-made,” and that indicates success and talent, these are perhaps the kind of people we want in office, since they have already accomplished a great deal in the private sector.

If it is inherited money, the situation might be different, although those with inherited wealth often have good education, perspective, background, etc.

On the other hand, if only the wealthy can run for office, a huge pool of talent is excluded from those who can seek higher office. Wealthy individuals seeking office are not all from one philosophy or party, Lynch and Benson being one example. However, excluding such a huge pool of talent as college professors, ordinary doctors and lawyers because they only have average means seems to narrow the available participants to the detriment of the public.

Perhaps the reason wealthy people dominate the political spectrum is the fact that political parties find it difficult to raise enough funds to effectively contest each office. Indeed, in the last election at least one political party chair was rumored to have sought only candidates who could fund or raise the money for their own campaigns, an admission that that leader was unable to raise sufficient funds to mount a campaign. If this is the case, what does it say about the efficacy of political parties, which seem to be relatively equally based, both nationally and in New Hampshire, given the close percentages of many of the recent political races?

Perhaps, and I bite my tongue when I say this, it is time to consider government funding of political campaigns – something that would level the playing field not only between the parties, but also between potential candidates of all economic strata. nhbr

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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