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If It's Too Broke, Don't Fix It

Experts warn against repairing Connecticut's campaign finance reform system on the eve of the 2010 elections; meanwhile, one of the system's biggest proponents opts out in favor of private fundraising

Gregory B. Hladky

January 19, 2010

You could hear the fear in the voices of supporters of Connecticut's tottering campaign finance system echoing through the federal courtroom in lower Manhattan.

"In my view, it's already too late," Attorney Ira Feinberg warned a federal appeals panel last week. He and others pleaded with the judges not to declare the landmark public-financing program unconstitutional just months before Connecticut's 2010 elections.

Overturning the system now could create political chaos, argued Feinberg, who is representing several pro-reform groups. Candidates would frantically shift into contribution-begging mode, scrambling for special-interest cash to replace the taxpayer dollars they'd been counting on from the public campaign-finance program.

"It is absolutely too late to make any kind of negative decision," agreed a nervous Beth A. Rotman, Connecticut's director of public campaign financing.

At almost the same moment, about 100 miles to the northeast, came a stunning signal that the money madness was already underway.

Susan Bysiewicz, who had been one of Connecticut's strongest advocates for public financing, was in her hometown of Middletown to declare she's abandoning that system in her quest to become the next state attorney general.

As secretary of the state, Bysiewicz is Connecticut's top election official. She worked for more than a decade to enact and promote public campaign financing. She'd even filed a Jan. 5 legal brief with the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals urging it to save the reform plan.

Bysiewicz is also an ambitious, cold-eyed realist. One of her nicknames when she was in the state legislature was "The Ice Queen," a reference both to her often-chilly personal style and her reputation for unsentimental political calculations.

Consider her decision to switch from the governor's race, where she was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, to run for the less prestigious (but politically safer) post of attorney general.

The next governor will face budget hell. Monstrous deficits are likely to force bitter spending cuts and unpopular tax increases. The lingering recession will keep voters pissed off. Whoever is governor may well end up in the political wilderness after a single, miserable, four-year term.

The next attorney general can spend his or her time crusading for the environment, consumer safety and health care; and against corrupt contractors, industrial polluters and other evil-doers. And, if the chance pops up in 2012 to run for the U.S. Senate seat now held by a very unpopular dude named Joe Lieberman, why, the AG's office might be the perfect launch point.

Bysiewicz blames her flip of the bird to public financing on the uncertainty caused by the federal courts, the lack of will among state lawmakers to fix the system's flaws now, and the danger the legislature will strip away all the program's money to help solve Connecticut's budget crunch. Political motives aside, Bysiewicz is dead-right about the system being in deep shit.

Last year, a U.S. District Court judge ruled the system unconstitutional, saying it discriminates against minor parties while helping major party candidates. The judge also questioned a "magic wand" provision that could boost campaign spending limits for participating candidates if they're up against opponents willing to spend more than the voluntary ceilings set under the law. The law's ban on political contributions and solicitations by lobbyists and state contractors was upheld. Those lower court decisions are all being appealed by different parties.

Connecticut's General Assembly enacted campaign finance reforms in 2005 to quell public fury over a series of scandals capped by the corruption case that forced Gov. John G. Rowland out of office and into federal prison. The peculiar part was that none of the Rowland administration scams involved either campaign contribution violations or criminal actions by lobbyists.

"Not one lobbyist has been convicted in any scandal," said R. Bartley Halloran*, a lawyer for the Association of Connecticut Lobbyists. Halloran argued the law's toughest-in-the-nation controls over what lobbyists and their families can do and say including restricting their participation in political parties is a clear violation of their constitutional rights.

It was an argument that seemed to resonate with at least a couple of members of the appeals panel. U.S. Judge Jose A. Cabranes said even the word lobbyist now has "a slightly pejorative" connotation with the general public. He suggested they should be called "First Amendment practitioners" because they are using free speech to try and influence legislation.

His comments felt like a karate chop to reform advocates who've been trying for decades to combat the influence of the millions of dollars lobbyists have poured into Connecticut campaigns through political-action-committee daisy chains and bundled contributions by big-money clients.

Perry Zinn-Rowthorn, a Connecticut associate attorney general, said legislators and the governor believed the public perception was that lobbyists "exercised undue influence" over elected officials. "They, more than anybody else, know what the perception is," he added.

Bysiewicz is convinced the appeals court will, at some point, rule the law unconstitutional and isn't willing to wait on the chance she's wrong.

"I'm extremely frustrated," Bysiewicz said. "There hasn't been a more ardent advocate for public financing than me." Her past advocacy for reform, however, won't stand in the way of Bysiewicz's determination to become attorney general.

"I can't operate in an environment where the constitutionality of a law is highly questionable," she said. "We don't know if the [public finance] money will still be there. ... You get to a point where you have to run a campaign and you have to know what the rules are."

Bysiewicz's about-face on campaign finance shook up both her former allies on that issue and her political opponents.

"I was surprised and disappointed because we've counted her as a supporter of the system and hoped she'd participate," said Rotman.

Rotman is worried the decision by Bysiewicz could provide political cover for other candidates to give up on the system. "It could be used by others to opt out, saying they need to spend more than the system allows."

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, a Republican candidate for governor, already has. He's ready to put in at least $2 million of his own money into his campaign. Democrat Ned Lamont, who spent more than $15 million out of his own pocket on a failed U.S. Senate run in 2006, is hinting he may by ready to finance his gubernatorial run this year.

One of Bysiewicz's top opponents for the Democratic attorney general's nomination is George Jepsen, a former state Democratic chairman and former state Senate majority leader. He called Bysiewicz's move "a complete shock. ... It's very difficult to reconcile her moving outside the system with everything she's said."

Jepsen clearly sees the Bysiewicz shift on this issue as potential campaign ammunition in a nomination race that's already gotten rough.

Last week, Bysiewicz came in for criticism that she doesn't have the 10 years of actual legal experience required by law for attorney general candidates. Bysiewicz insisted her time as an attorney plus her service as secretary of the state clearly demonstrates she meets the requirements. "Those who suggest that I'm not eligible to serve are being very irresponsible and show very poor legal judgement," she said, adding she's asked for a formal legal opinion on the issue. Jepsen calls the matter a "gray area of law," but argues the "whole episode points to how paper thin her credentials are."

But Jepsen agrees with Bysiewicz that the General Assembly isn't ready to do anything now to repair the campaign finance system. "I think there are the votes in the House to make a fix, but it may be harder to get the votes in the Senate," he said.

Judge Cabranes hinted an appellate decision could take "three or four months," and was asking how that timing might affect Connecticut's elections.

The answer is, it already has.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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