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Election Finance Law Shackles Candidates

Kevin Rennie

December 06, 2009

The jewel in Gov. M. Jodi Rell's crown is made of expensive paste. Her 2005 legislation to overhaul the financing of political campaigns is proving to be an unwieldy mess that stymies the vigorous exchange of ideas. It magnifies the fortunes of wealthy candidates as it tramples on the Constitution.

To qualify for public funding of a campaign for governor under the new system, a candidate must raise $250,000 in contributions of no more than $100 each, which means attracting a minimum of 2,500 donors, if they all contribute the maximum. The candidates who manage to do that must wait until after the party conventions in May to receive $1.2 million from the state, if there's a primary. Each party's nominee receives $3 million for the general election.

Until the party conventions in May, campaigns participating in public financing live on fumes. It costs a lot more than $250,000 to run a campaign for governor during the first five months of an election year.

The rich candidate who eschews public financing faces no such constraints. The airwaves are the rich candidate's to command, strafing, bombing or ignoring opponents who are scraping by on their piddling small contributions. Candidates opting into the taxpayer-financed system take a political vow of silence until the party conventions.

Democrat Ned Lamont, who spent about $16 million of his own money on his 2006 race for the U.S. Senate, is thinking about running for governor. If Lamont does not participate in the public financing system, he can get an early start on the convention and the August primary by dominating the Democratic field.

Lamont, who remains familiar to state voters, can concentrate on reshaping his image from anti-war symbol to successful small businessman with a plan to run the state. He can ignore the other Democrats.

Those other Democrats will spend their days on the phone trying to coax $100 ("$50? Would you consider a little bit more?" Oy.) out of potential contributors. It is hard going. Four years ago, Democrat Dan Malloy had raised $1.2 million as 2006 began. Neither Malloy nor New Haven Mayor John DeStefano ran extravagant campaigns, but by the time the primary campaign got underway that summer, they'd raised $4 million between them. In those days, donors could give up to $2,500 per person.

Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele announced last week he will seek the Republican nomination for governor. He's in for a surprise. Raising that $250,000 from the thin ranks of Connecticut Republicans requires a taste for tedium.

The campaign finance law championed by Rell, Fedele's "partner in government," bars many citizens from participating in politics. Lobbyists and their family members cannot contribute. It is against the law for lobbyists to exercise the fundamental right of free speech by urging others to give. Rell will forever be associated with this shame. Let's see how much Fedele enjoys his partner's creation when he lives under it.

Former Ambassador Tom Foley is rich, but not in the same class as Connecticut Croesus Linda McMahon. The wrestling mogul is or was in the billion-dollar range, a special class in a place like Greenwich, where both McMahon and Foley live. Her riches (and willingness to spend them) made Foley's look, well, puny by the exacting, obsessive standards of the wealthy.

McMahon's spending chased Foley out of the Senate race and into the contest for governor last week. Foley's wealth still means something there. If he drops a couple of million into his campaign over the next five months, he can pay for polling, advertising and wooing the Republican faithful. It will also allow him to define himself with the public while Fedele scrambles to find thousands of Republican donors.

Stymied by the system, Fedele won't have the money for ads that publicly examine other candidates' political contributions. He won't be able to do much with Foley's contribution to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. Foley's terse campaign announcement on Thursday chose platitudes over substance, so maybe he has nothing to say.

If there's an unexpected choice, someone who isn't rich but who advocates interesting ideas, he or she will have a hard time being heard. So many people are banned from participating that if you aren't rich, you're sentenced to months of scavenging for small contributions in the name of Jodi Rell's virtue.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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