Sunday, November 02, 2014

The Complete Washingtonization Of Politics


This election cycle should serve as a case study in how not to run the DCCC. We've been referring to it as The Steve Israel Effect but, even if Israel is the worst practitioner ever, the DCCC's inability to do its job predated Israel for as long as anyone alive can remember. This goes beyond spending $4,000,000 in a blue-leaning New York City district for a recruit so unattractive that he could lose in a landslide to a Mafia thug with 20 criminal indictments. The story, or a version of it, can be told in any district in the country that Steve Israel stuck his nose into.

As an example, let's look at Friday morning's memo from California Democratic Party vice chair (for Southern California) Eric Bauman, entitled "New Data Indicates Turnout In The Inland Empire Is Dismal This Year." It would never occur to Bauman-- like Israel (in so many ways)-- that dismal candidates make for dismal turnout-- and dismal years. Bauman and Israel pushed Pete Aguilar, a failed bank lobbyist and crony of Jerry Lewis' old Redlands machine pretending to be a Democrat, for a second cycle in a row, helping him to a primary win against a candidate, Eloise Reyes, who would now be wiping the floor with Republican nonentity-- and likely congressman-- Paul Chabot. Instead the DCCC and their House Majority PAC have squandered $1,447,118 on a D+5 solid blue district where the NRCC didn't spend a nickel (although the NRA did spend $4,530).
Vice President Joe Biden is visiting the Indland Empire on Saturday, in an effort to prop up the campaign of Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands), who is running in the open 31st Congressional District against Paul Chabot (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Sources tell InlandPolitics the Aguilar camp is feeling pretty stressed these days, and rightfully so.

Aguilar could easily lose again.
Republicans don't win in D+3 districts, not ever. D+5? Only when someone like Steve Israel is running the DCCC and can get away with recruiting something like Pete Aguilar as the Beltway's favorite candidate. This week, coincidentally, a friend of mine, Moe, dug up a Washington Post OpEd from a reform-minded Democratic congressional candidate, Advise and Resent: Mr. Smith Went to Washington-- and Fled the PACs, which was published on August 25, 1991. It's worth reading and relating to the situation DCCC chairs like Rahm Emanuel and Steve Israel have reinforced and are still reinforcing on House Democrats and candidates who would like to run for Congress.

Even in a quiet year, many believe, we Iowans are being inundated by presidential contenders. Our first-in-the-nation caucus state is seen as a model of democracy. Perhaps it is, yet there is a terrible feeling here that it just doesn't matter anymore. Those who once took pride in raising issues at their neighborhood caucuses, knowing they had a chance of affecting the national agenda, are feeling left out.

This has happened because people believe they're trying to work within an American campaign system that's gone haywire. I'm no political evangelist, but I've made it my business to tell my fellow Iowans just what's happened. More specifically, I tell them about my experience last year as a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.

They've found my experience appalling-- exemplifying what many Iowans believe has gone wrong: the dramatic shift from a participatory democracy to a highly centralized and manipulative system. At the risk of sounding naive, I'll confess that I was struck by this realization when I made my quest for the Democratic nomination in Iowa's second congressional district-- a seat vacated by Rep. Tom Tauke, who unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

My instruction was served up by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the group whose purpose it is to maintain a Democratic majority in the House. On March 1 last year, the DCCC put on a workshop for challengers at its Washington headquarters, a couple of blocks from the Capitol. The Republicans were doing the same thing at a different time and place.

I attended the workshop with 70 Democratic candidates from all over the country. We hoped that those in Washington, and particularly in my party, had been awakened to the compelling need for campaign reform. After all, one would have expected scandals like the "Keating Five" situation to have brought on a rush to find a better way. I looked forward to returning to Cedar Rapids filled with ideas, ideals, issues and inspiration.

It didn't happen that way. Instead, we were lectured by members of Congress, PAC representatives, pollsters, consultants and media specialists who told us how the "game" is played. As our tape recorders took down their words of wisdom, we heard political "axioms" like the following:

"Marty Stone, staff member of the DCCC: "Money drives this town."

"Tom King, principal of Fenn and King consultants: "You have to sell yourself in Washington first" (pointing out the primacy of Washington professionals over the people you intend to represent). "Negative politics in a primary campaign produces damaged goods," he added, "but you've got to do what you've got to do."

"Frank Greer of Greer, Margolis, Mitchell: "The game of raising PAC money here in Washington will make the difference. Understand how the game is played. It's crucial to your being one of the few that will win." He continued: "It doesn't matter whether negative campaigning is good or bad; it's a reality."

There was more advice at the workshop: Rep. Peter Hoagland, a Nebraska Democrat, assured us that "Raising campaign money from Washington PACs is much easier than from individuals because it's a business relationship."

I wondered just what kind of business relationship he had in mind. Having been in business for 25 years, I believed such a relationship to be an exchange of money or some other consideration for products or services of value. Marty Stone clarified this concept for us: "These people are paid to give you money," he said, "You have to do certain things, but they want to give you money."

George Gould of the letter-carriers union indirectly explained why so little PAC money goes to challengers-- and how PAC giving has less to do with ideology than with access to power: "I don't give my people's money to those I think are going to lose, so you have to convince me you're going to win."

He didn't mince words about the implied agreement between the PAC and the recipient of the PAC's largesse. Nor did he flinch when he said, "When you take PAC money, you are saying you're their friend."

As a candidate, I refused PAC money-- one of two House candidates in the nation to do so. In part, this was a reflection of the caucus-generated platform of Iowa Democrats-- one that called for an end to the influence of PACs and a limit to the obscene levels of campaign spending. In addition, I had been working for campaign reform since 1980 in the belief that the best way to return the agenda of representative democracy to its citizens is to assure a government beholden only to them and not to Washington-based, special-interest pressure groups.

In light of that, you can imagine my reaction to being lectured at the workshop by Hoagland, who said, "Some of you may be under pressure to repudiate PACs. I strongly suggest you not take the hook. Restrain yourself, don't let zeal for reform influence you. Process challenges just don't work."

There were many candidates present who, like myself, were fighting personal financial odds to take a year or more from their jobs to campaign for Congress. Nevertheless, we were told by Hoagland-- who, incidentally, spent $ 180,000 of his own money on his campaign-- that the "ultimate test of your commitment is how much of your own money you are willing to put into your own campaign. If you aren't willing to use your own money, you ought to think about [doing] something else."

He further urged us to adopt this approach because "It will be a permanent career change, you'll be here as long as you want." He was apparently underscoring a system of campaign funding that has become an overwhelmingly effective incumbent-protection tool. He was also, in my view, advocating the principle that personal wealth is an appropriate qualification for election to office.

The complete Washingtonization of politics had become abundantly clear. It was all right there. Everything you could ever want for a successful election was either right in the room or within walking distance. The second day of the workshop began with a "mating dance" brunch, limited to candidates and PACs. Candidates wore blue name tags and PACs wore red. The occasion was opened by Arkansas Rep. Beryl Anthony, then head of the DCCC, who defined PACs as an acronym for "People Are Concerned." He said that candidates facing those who criticize PACs must "take that issue straight to 'em because PACs represent thousands of little people."

I saw the Phillips Petroleum PAC representative smile with approval. I wondered if he was representative of the "little people" to whom Anthony referred. The congressman went on to tell the PAC people they'd be able to pick winners and find matches in the room that will "make your board of directors proud of you."

Candidates were coached to hire Washington consultants and pollsters with the money they raised from Washington PACs. Hoagland told us we "must hire world-class people and not local [back home] people. That's why you have to raise a lot of money." The letter-carriers' Gould said, "You can't hire local people-- forget it!"

Talk about vertical integration of the campaign industry! Here was a congressman telling us how to get the money and a PAC director giving the specifics, while on the same panel were the consultants, pollsters and media gurus who were ready to spend every dime of it for us. Left out of the equation were the people I sought to represent.

Gould went on to warn candidates of the folly of involving volunteers from home districts, saying we may need them near election day to "walk the streets." Said Gould, "In the first phases they'll be no help. They can't do polling, radio, direct mail or TV." At the moment he spoke, my campaign had scores of volunteers who still believed in a government "of the people," phoning neighbors to talk about the campaign and issues that concerned them. Other volunteers were stuffing and stamping envelopes for a "direct mail" response to those concerns.

I suppose you could say that my reaction was pretty emotional. I stood and implored the candidates and panelists, saying that much of what we'd heard is much of what is wrong with the process of politics, campaigns and government today. I told the gathering that it ought to be the Democrats who lead the effort to end the kind of politics we had been coached that day to execute.

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence after my comments. It was broken when PAC director Gould said, "Well, I guess we don't have to worry about contributing to that campaign!" There was polite laughter and the workshop proceeded.

Later, though, many of the candidates approached me individually to second my chagrin about a system out of control. At one point, there were five of us in the restroom during a break, railing against the seaminess and proposing how we might best change the system. However, most of them already had committed to raising as much PAC money as they could, so they didn't want to express their concern in the presence of PACs and the DCCC. But, before the workshop was over, more than half of the candidates present, one at a time, whispered their affirmation of my remarks and their deep disappointment in the position of those representing our party.

One lasting impression came during a brief discussion I had with a would-be candidate who decided, during those two days, not to run. "This has got to change," he confided. He pointed out the difficulty of bringing such activity to an end. A psychologist by profession, he concluded that the behavior we witnessed was addictive in nature and that he had often seen similar symptoms in his practice. We mused that the habit-forming "politically addictive cocaine-- PAC" fueled all of what we saw here. It is an addiction, he said, that has to be "kicked."

In looking back, I realize how serious Frank Greer was when he said, "The campaigns that get the help are the ones that listen to the DCCC when they say that you have to go after a specific PAC and the like. The candidates that listen will get the help in the last few months of the campaign."

Our campaign was cut from the DCCC mailing list soon after the workshop. The issue papers, congressional calendars, updates on important legislation and all the rest were sent only to my primary opponent, Eric Tabor, who was making his third run for the House. He had been the third highest PAC-funded challenger in the nation during the prior election. On election night, when I called my opponent's office to concede, the person who answered his phone was a paid staff member of the DCCC. In November, Tabor was defeated by Republican Jim Nussel.

Now, the Senate has taken some steps toward campaign reform, and the measure it passed in the spring is before the House. I would like to show members of Congress the petition I have. It was signed by the 13 members of the Daughters of the American Revolution who met on a Tuesday noon in the library in Marion, Iowa. The same response came from the 41 members of the Clinton Kiwanis Club; 27 members at the meeting of UAW Local 1024; the executive committee of the Linn County Farm Bureau; the Lions Club of Lansing; Rotarians in Manchester; a Guttenburg High School government class; a local chapter of the American Business Women's Association; Dubuque Optimists; Teamsters retirees; the Cedar Rapids NAACP; and over 50 other diverse eastern Iowa service clubs, civic groups and the like.

The citizens at these gatherings, including Republicans, Democrats and independents, signed a petition that is a call to action to end the stranglehold that PACs have on democracy, return the agenda of government to its citizens and stop the "arms race" of campaign spending.

You have to wonder if it is possible for House members to hear the voices like those in eastern Iowa and join with the Senate to begin the return to a government of, by and for the people. Or will they adhere to a government of the PACs, by the consultants and for the special interests?

Steve Sovern, formerly a sign manufacturer, is now a law student at the University of Iowa.

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At 6:00 PM, Blogger ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

It would never occur to Bauman-- like Israel (in so many ways)-- that dismal candidates make for dismal turnout-- and dismal years.

I think they'd rather lose elections than lose control of the party. And the corporations that give them the big bucks are happy to have this outcome: heads they win, tails they win.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger DownWithTyranny said...

One top Democratic candidate this cycle read the post and sent me a note. He doesn't want his name used. His message was short and simple-- and not very encouraging: "Prescient words. Still, little prospect that anything changes, even with a change of chairs at DCCC."


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