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That's Public Money Talking

Kevin Rennie

August 08, 2010

Connecticut is witnessing a vivid demonstration of the power of money among the members of each party who traditionally participate in party primaries. I offer no predictions on winners and losers, but the vast amount of money spent on campaigns to this point has made them more competitive than they would otherwise have been.

Of particular interest is the effect of millions in taxpayer money given to candidates who, if history is any guide, would not have raised nearly as much on their own. This causes the government to insert itself into the political system in dangerous and expensive manner. The most powerful political office in the state can now be found in a bureaucracy that has won undeserved deference.

The Citizens' Election Program has provided nearly $7 million to candidates for statewide office in Tuesday's party primaries. The ability to scrutinize whether a candidate abided by the rules in raising that money is hindered by the compressed calendar from the fundraising deadline to the funding and on to the primary.

The candidates participating in the public financing program got a nasty surprise as they were trying to meet the threshold of $250,000 for governor or $75,000 for other statewide candidates in contributions of $100 or less. It's hard to find people willing to donate to political campaigns. It was a challenge for Democrats, who have hundreds of thousands more registered voters in their ranks than do the Republicans, who struggled even more.

Most came close to or up against the July 16 deadline for reaching the threshold. The State Election Enforcement Commission would meet days later and approve the grant for the candidate. A full campaign would begin. There were plenty of issues that came up in the rules and standards the SEEC applied in making decisions in this, the first year the taxpayer-financed scheme is available to candidates for statewide office.

The problem for those asking questions was that they had only a few days to do it in the short time available between the fundraising deadline and the handing over of the dough. Therefore, doubters, who refused to offer blind deference to the SEEC, had to resort to the extraordinary measure of seeking an injunction in court.

This put judges in the unhappy position of being asked to decide an election based on a few hours of testimony and argument. If a court granted an injunction seeking to halt a candidate from spending money in the final weeks of a campaign, that race was over. Candidates knew it, and so did the judges. Contests for governor have become closer since the taxpayer money has made its way to candidates. We'll see on Tuesday what messages worked best. We know the money mattered, too.

Between wealthy candidates using their own fortunes and others spending public funds, Connecticut has been awash in campaign cash. Watch a local television station for an hour or go to peruse your mail and you'll see how it's being spent.

What it's unlikely to do is expand the number of voters who participate in the party primaries on Tuesday. Neither party will reach the 40 percent mark that Democrats saw troop to the polls in the 2006 primary for the U.S. Senate nomination contest. This year, far more will be spent among all the primary candidates for many fewer voters to participate.

It takes a sense of urgency to move beyond the reliable 20-25 percent of registered party members who decide to pay attention, make a choice and participate in an August primary. The candidates for governor have sounded reluctant to emphasize the acute nature of the challenges ahead.

One leader who is in a royal snit is the state scold, Gov. M. Jodi Rell. Snow White is not well-pleased with the tone of the campaigns. The mother of the misbegotten public financing program sounded surprised to learn that public funds may be spent on the negative ads that campaigns continue to fire at each other.

For all their disagreements, however, the five candidates for governor, Republicans and Democrats, in Tuesday's primaries found some common ground: Rell's feckless tenure in office has been a disaster, with the consequences growing closer and more lethal.

Kevin Rennie is a lawyer and a former Republican state legislator. He can be reached at kfrennie@yahoo.com.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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