Incumbents wield unfair advantage
We all complain about our elected officials, especially our state legislators and our members of Congress.
Well, perhaps not all of us do, but trust in our legislative assemblies probably is on a par with trust in big banks to help out the little guy.
Yet, even in years like 2010, when we hear rational cries to throw out all incumbents, the great majority will be re-elected. There are a lot of advantages that incumbents have over challengers.
First, we are more likely to know the names of our legislators than those of the folks challenging them. We may think that incumbents generally are bums, but we like our incumbent.
One reason we like our incumbents is because we have seen photos of them in newspapers handing very large cardboard checks to our mayor or town supervisor. It almost looks like our senator or assemblyperson is giving us some of his or her money rather than presenting us with some of our money.
We also know our incumbents are good guys because they tell us so at our expense. They send us glossy pictures of themselves showing them chatting with senior citizens or high five-ing little leaguers or having a really serious conversation with our local school superintendent or greeting a soldier returning from the Middle East.
Incumbents usually outspend their opponents in elections because they have access to funds from individuals and groups who like their track records. You know how this goes. If a legislator votes for what labor unions want, then those unions contribute money and lots of time to his or her campaign. Ditto for the Chamber of Commerce or the beer distributors’ PAC.
So, what can we do to try to minimize the natural advantage of incumbency? Congress, especially beginning post-Watergate (that’s post-1974 for you young ones), has tried to figure out ways that pass constitutional muster to limit campaign spending of certain types.
If money rules in elections, we not only get skewed election results, but we also lose lots of potentially good candidates who know they cannot or will not raise enough money to be competitive.
The Supreme Court has rightly looked at such campaign finance laws skeptically, because the court is guardian of, among other things, our first amendment freedoms.
On occasion, the Supreme Court has recognized grave evils that need some curb on first amendment freedoms, hence the court’s famous statement that the right of free speech does not include the right to shout “Fire” in a crowded room.
A recent Supreme Court case has struck down several campaign finance limitations that Congress enacted because it apparently does not see any ‘clear and present danger’ that they present to our democracy.
We the people have to have some reform of how our campaigns are financed if we are going to have a recognizable democracy. We all are aware that at least some legislators are for sale.
We know that the promise of campaign funds or the threat to withdraw them is powerful. Our former Senator Al D’Amato admitted that such funds do not necessarily buy votes but they do buy access. Is that the way to run a democracy that is rooted in the principle of equality?
I am convinced that there are ways to write campaign finance legislation in Albany and Washington that pass constitutional muster, although at the moment the Supreme Court is going to be reluctant to accept any limits.
However, that is not our only option. Some think term limits is a way to deal with the problem, but I don’t like that solution because I want to keep an excellent legislator working for me.
Several states, including generally conservative Arizona and generally moderate Maine, have legislation in place governing state races to help to level the playing field for incumbents and challengers.
These states do not have public financing of campaigns, but they do provide some funds for candidates who can show that they have broad support. If a candidate receives a certain number of $5 contributions, then he or she qualifies for state funds.
No one is required to take these funds, and candidates can raise and spend additional money that they raise. There is no limit to the total amount spent in a campaign and no limit to a candidate’s contribution of his or her own money.
When I ran for Congress, I did not get my message out because I had only $60,000. I could afford no mailing to all voters, and I did no advertising on network television.
I also had no paid staff, and I could not afford to take a poll. Had I had $300,000, I would still have been outspent by Tom Reynolds by a ratio of 3:1.
However, with that money I could have gotten my message to the voters. Given the fact that I got 43 percent of the vote, I might even have won! (Sorry for the brief but recurring delusion of grandeur even 11 years later.)
So, Senators and Schumer and Gillibrand, Congressman Lee, Assemblymen Errigo and Burling, Senators Volker and Young, go to work so that we have real and competitive elections.
Oh, and don’t forget to redistrict after this year’s census in a way that honors citizens and not parties or individual incumbents. Like the newest US Senator from Massachusetts said during the campaign:
The Senate seat in Massachusetts was not Ted Kennedy’s and it wasn’t the Democrats’; it is the people’s seat!”
Hey, they are all the people’s seats.