Article navigation: Why so few elections? | Why no third-party candidates? | No limits on party fundraising (the Black problem) | No limits on rich politicos (the Pope problem) | No spending limits, no public financing

Consider the case of Democratic House Speaker Jim Black. He raises campaign funds from notorious special interests (payday lenders, video poker operators, the hog industry). He shuffles it, through various party committees, to the Democratic candidates in closely contested House races. He let a lobbyist, Meredith Norris, run his office (with the title of political director), and she helped him with the fundraising. He took some of the money in the form of blank checks, and used a few of them to help secure the allegiance of a Republican House member, Michael Decker. Decker’s switch to the Democratic side helped Black remain as speaker.

This month, Decker pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiring to sell his public office. But Black says he’s innocent of buying it. He merely helped Decker raise some campaign money after becoming a Democrat, which if true is, of course, not illegal.

Or consider the case of former Republican legislator Art Pope. He is a very wealthy man. (His family owns Variety Wholesalers Inc., with 500-plus stores in 14 states.) When a few rebellious House Republicans, including Decker, threw in with Democrat Black, Pope got busy exposing their perfidious conduct. Three years later, mission accomplished. Pope’s spending helped bring down nine GOP legislators in primary battles fought over two separate election campaigns, culminating this spring with the defeat of Black’s main Republican ally, former House Co-Speaker Richard Morgan.

Pope stands accused (by Morgan) of using corporate money–Variety Wholesalers’ money–in state campaigns. If true, that would be illegal. But Pope maintains that he was simply engaged in political “education,” telling the public what their legislators were up to in Raleigh, and did not take sides between specific candidates. If that’s what it was, then he was well within his First Amendment rights.

So here’s a question: Besides Decker, what do these two cases have in common?

If you answered big-money politics, you’d be half-right.

Always follow the money, says inveterate reformer Bob Hall, Democracy North Carolina’s research director, in cases like these.

But when Chris Heagarty, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, pondered Michael Decker’s fall, he hit on the other half of the equation.

Decker sold out for $50,000 and a legislative job for his son, Heagarty wrote in his column. Wasn’t his price “a little bit, well, cheap?”

Cheap is right, too.

Follow the money, you see, and you’ll discover that the big political powerhouses like Black and Pope don’t have to raise (or spend) all that much to control our legislative elections in North Carolina.

It’s especially not that much when you consider what’s at stake–starting with an $18-billion-a-year state budget.

And why is it not that much?

It’s because there aren’t very many elections to control.

Or voters to persuade.

The real scandal–the one behind the Black & Decker scandal and the controversy surrounding Pope–is the way our legislators have systematically removed voters from the legislative elections process while giving themselves completely safe districts to run in.

With voters thus eliminated all over the state, it’s that much easier for special-interest contributors and their lobbyists to buy influence in Raleigh–at bargain-basement prices.

The real scandal consists of:

  • Very few elections, because of bipartisan legislative gerrymandering
  • No third-party candidates, because of ballot-access obstacles
  • No limits on party and “leadership” fundraising (like Black’s)
  • No limits on big spenders (like Pope)
  • No campaign spending limits
  • No public campaign financing alternatives

And the much-touted “reforms” passed in the 2005-06 General Assembly session? They’ll help a little on the ethics front, but they won’t make any difference where the real scandal is concerned.

The dirty little secret of our elected officials in Raleigh is that they hate elections. And in the case of elected legislators, they have a handy tool at their disposal to protect them from having to run in very many. It’s called bipartisan gerrymandering.

Explaining why gerrymandering is a bipartisan endeavor gets complicated, but it starts with the constitutional system of winner-take-all districts, which is why the United States (unlike most other democracies, where proportional representation is the rule) has just two major political parties.

In theory, however, even though the two parties will usually be closely matched (if one party pulls ahead, the other one should “move to the center” and close the gap), small swings in public opinion can still give the winning party in an election a comfortable majority of the legislative seats.

Why’s that? Because, assuming most districts are competitive, a close win overall by the Republicans, say by 52 percent to 48 percent statewide, should allow lots of GOP candidates to win their own close races by that same 52-48 or 51-49 margin.

That’s in theory.

In practice, incumbents don’t like close elections, and they avoid them by drawing up lopsided districts for everybody, regardless of party. (The only exception: Legislators who gracefully retire, or are talked into it, which gives the line-drawers some needed latitude.)

Do the math, and you’ll see that in a state like North Carolina, which is pretty closely divided politically, lopsided districts for all the incumbents means that about half must be bulletproof for the Democrats, and half for the Republicans.

Remember that point. We’ll come back to it later, when we look at what Jim Black did after the 2002 election ended in a photo-finish, with the Democrats taking 59 House seats and the Republicans 61.

Our point now is that, when the General Assembly redrew its own districts following the 2000 Census, it created at least 33 “safe” Senate districts for one or the other party, out of 50; and at least 94 “safe” House districts, out of 120.

Thus, in 127 of the 170 districts–or 75 percent of them–elections were essentially cancelled for the decade.

That assessment is made on the basis of a very generous analysis, which is that: 1) a district is only “safe” for the Democrats if more than 45 percent of the registered voters are Democrats and the margin over registered Republicans is at least 15 percent; 2) a district is “safe” for Republicans only if the percentage of registered Republicans is over 45 percent or the margin over Democrats is at least 10 percent.

(The difference in standards reflects the large number of registered Democrats who nonetheless vote Republican in statewide and national elections.)

Districts that meet neither standard are considered competitive by these yardsticks.

In fact, however, the best analysts of state elections (for example, John Davis, of the business-funded group NC FREE) tell us there are at most 25 competitive districts in all of North Carolina, and just half of them are true “swing” districts–meaning they could go either way in a typical election year. (That’s as opposed to a “sea change” election of the kind that swept the Republicans out in 1974, post-Watergate, or the one that swept them in, post-Hillarycare, in 1994.)

That’s 12 or 13 swing districts out of 170.

For a closer look, consider (using the party registration data supplied on the General Assembly website) the way the House districts were whacked up after 2000 in closely divided Wake County.

DistrictRegistered DemocratsRegistered Republicans2004 Winner
3364%19%Dem. Bernard Allen
3442%37%Dem. Grier Martin
3545%31%Dem. Jennifer Weiss
3634%42%Rep. Nelson Dollar
3737%42%Rep. Paul Stam
3855%25%Dem. Deborah Ross
3951%32%Dem. Linda Coleman
4032%47%Rep. Rick Eddins
4132%42%Rep. Russell Capps

At first glance, three of the Wake districts look like they could be competitive–34, 35, and 36. In fact, however, only District 34 produced a real race in ’04. In District 35, Democratic incumbent Jennifer Weiss had no Republican opponent. And in District 36, Republican Nelson Dollar, who’d won a contested GOP primary, had no Democratic opponent.

The upshot was, the lion’s share of spending on House races in Wake County was in District 34, where Democratic challenger Grier Martin spent $390,000 unseating Republican incumbent Don Munford, who spent $306,000.

In every other House district, the winner either ran unopposed or had just token opposition.

The same was true for all four of Wake County’s Senate districts. Three were won easily by Democrats Janet Cowell and Vernon Malone and Republican Richard Stevens. In the fourth, Republican Neal Hunt was unopposed.

Bottom line: 13 legislative districts in Wake County produced just one competitive election, and 12 walkovers.

And 2004 was the good old days compared to this year’s elections. In 2006, there’s only one major-party candidate in 23 of the 50 Senate districts statewide, and in 64 of the 120 House districts. Which means that voters need not attend in more than half of the so-called legislative elections.

Problem #1: The two parties whack up the districts between them in the redistricting process, eliminating the voters. Solution: Create a nonpartisan commission to apportion districts and generate more competitive elections. Consider some multi-member districts, with proportional representation. This session: no action.

In the sorry story of gerrymandering, the tale of what happened to ballot-access reform this session is an unhappy postcript. It’s not enough that our legislators have lopsided, one-party districts to run in, apparently. They’ve also eliminated third-party candidates.

For how this works, look at the history of the Libertarian Party in North Carolina. Seven times they’ve collected enough petition signatures to get a party line for their candidates. And seven times, they’ve been booted off and forced to start over because their candidate for governor (or president) didn’t get 10 percent of the vote.

OK, but they did get on seven times–so it can’t be that hard, right? Wrong. It’s a Herculean task that takes all the party’s energies, according to Sean Haugh, the state director. Most states want 5,000 to 10,000 signatures from third parties, and once on, make it fairly easy to stay on. But North Carolina requires about 70,000, and since some people sign who aren’t registered voters (but will tell you they are), the real requirement is at least 100,000.

(By the way, the Democrats and Republicans don’t need any signatures, because their gubernatorial candidates do get 10 percent.)

The Libertarians failed to make the ballot this year. The Green Party has never made it. Ralph Nader, the two-time Green Party presidential candidate, wasn’t on the ballot in North Carolina either time.

So the Greens and the Libertarians are suing the state, arguing that the Democrat-Republican combo in the legislature violates their 14th Amendment rights (the “equal protection of the laws” provision). They were hoping the legislature would respond by relaxing its rules, but no soap–the General Assembly did approve a meaningless change to the 10-percent rule (cutting it to 7 percent), but left the 70,000 petitions rule intact (2 percent of the registered voters).

So if you’re thinking that, in a lopsided Democratic district, maybe a Green Party candidate could shake things up (or a Libertarian in a Republican district), think again. They could file as independents, district by district. But the petition requirements for independent candidates are even worse.

Problem #2: In one-party districts, a Libertarian or Green candidate could offer different ideas and perhaps occasionally eveb be competitive. But they can’t get on the ballot. Solution: Make the ballot-access rules fair, as in most other states. This session: no action.

Jim Black’s woes can be traced back to that “sea change” election of 1994, when Democratic voters stayed home in droves and the Republicans took control of the N.C. House, the first time they’d controlled either chamber of the legislature in the 20th century. Quickly, Senate Democrats decided that to avoid the same fate, they had to get serious about fundraising, and the caucus system was born. Clinging to a 26-24 majority, the Democrats started voting as a bloc, raising money as a bloc and spending it as a bloc in the targeted swing districts they needed to win to stay in power.

It worked.

So by 1998, when the Democrats regained control of the House, an entrenched Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight had been established as the model: The new House speaker should be a fundraiser first and foremost, and use the money to keep his caucus in power too.

And that’s exactly what Speaker Black set out to do, raising money from the usual suspects (the utility companies, the banks and what Democracy NC’s Hall uncharitably calls the “Pollution Lobby”–homebuilders, timber, mining and real-estate interests, the chemical manufacturers, and the hog industry). These interest groups give to both parties, but more to the party in power. And they reap billions of dollars worth of special treatment in return, Hall charges.

But Black didn’t stop with them. He also tapped the payday lenders and the video-poker machine owners–two fringe “industries” that would’ve been thrown out of North Carolina without his protection–and were once he got in trouble. He championed the state lottery. And he hit up the optometrists, his own trade, while slipping a very profitable bit of legislation for them into the state budget.

A big loophole in the state laws on campaign fundraising helped. While there are limits on contributions to individual candidates, there’s no limit on how much a contributor can give to a political party’s committees, and no limits on how much the party can give to its candidates.

Thus, there was no practical limit on how much Black could raise, and his own standards were pretty relaxed, shall we say, about where he was raising it from.

Still, Black’s job got tougher after the 2000 census, because the bipartisan gerrymandering that followed so sharply limited the number of swing districts his hard-earned campaign cash could swing. And in 2002, a year when the “tough on terrorism” Republicans were ascendant, he fell just short, with 59 seats to the Republicans’ 61. No problem. He still had enough money on hand, or readily available, to procure Decker’s switch and set the wheels in motion for the deal with Morgan and the renegade Republicans.

Remember, Black didn’t have to buy a lot of Republicans, just one. And obviously, Decker was the cheapest.

In the 2004 elections, with the Republicans’ foreign-policy disasters more apparent, Black’s House Democrats picked up four crucial seats, including Grier Martin’s District 34.

Black’s in serious trouble. (For more on his problems, see “Black Day at the IHOP, page 24.)

But looking back on his exploits–and Basnight’s–what’s remarkable is how little money they needed to raise to keep their Democratic forces in power.

According to the Republicans’ count, the two leaders raised $9.5 million over the six-year period from 1998-2004, which sounds like a lot–and it is, but only because the Democrats could target it on a handful of swing elections and not have to spread it around.

Just think: If 510 more or less competitive legislative elections had been held in that time–170 in each of three election years, the way it’s supposed to be–the Black-Basnight efforts would’ve averaged out to less than $20,000 per election.

Instead, for example, Grier Martin’s winning ’04 campaign was helped by approximately $102,000 from Democratic Party committees, most of which Black raised himself or else helped the party to raise. Martin’s a progressive Democrat and among the leading proponents of public campaign financing for legislative campaigns. Rep. Pricey Harrison’s win over Republican incumbent Joannie Bowie in Guilford County, with $185,000 from Black-related party committees (out of the $481,000 she spent), was another big pickup for the Dems and for progressives–Harrison has emerged as one of the leading environmentalists in Raleigh.

The problem, then, isn’t who got elected with Black’s help, or party help. It’s that getting elected with the party’s money, when the party raised it in sleazy ways, can be a black mark on your record before you even start.

Thus, the Republicans are already on the attack, challenging Democratic candidates in ’06 to run without the $1 million Black’s raised this time. Martin and Harrison have announced they won’t be taking money directly from Black’s campaign committee. Martin says he hasn’t decided whether to turn down all Democratic party money, which would eliminate the possibility of indirectly getting some of Black’s money. One reason he hasn’t: So far, Black hasn’t actually given it to the party, and may not.

Anyway, it’s all good campaign fodder. But as Bob Hall says, it’s a mistake to fixate on Black’s missteps and fail to see the bigger picture, which is a campaign finance system “that’s out of control.”

Problem #3: Centralized, unlimited political fundraising in Raleigh, which allows special-interest money to be washed through party committees. Solution: Limit contributions and how much a candidate can take from political parties; limit campaign spending overall. This session: no action.

The problem with campaign spending limits, the naysayers always say, is what happens when an Art Pope shows up around election time and either showers a favored candidate with his considerable “issue advocacy” or else carpetbombs a candidate he dislikes.

If a rich guy like Pope can spend unlimited sums to attack you, and your own spending is limited, you’re toast.

Exhibit A: The 300-page complaint filed at the State Board of Elections by now-former Co-Speaker Richard Morgan, after Pope’s blistering attacks on him, and on the Republican House members associated with him, led directly to them losing 2006 primary elections. The winners: candidates favored by Pope, presumably.

Pope’s spending–in the ’06 and ’04 elections–wasn’t reported in the usual ways, because it didn’t take the form of contributions to specific candidates nor to the Republican Party. Instead, he formed a pair of nonprofit groups, including a so-called 527 committee, which is an IRS designation for an advocacy group that seeks to influence public opinion without crossing the line to regulated political “electioneering.” (Think Swift Boat Veterans, another 527. Or, on the liberal side, America Coming Together in the 2004 presidential year.)

Well, electioneering is in the eye of the beholder, perhaps. True, Pope’s Republican Legislative Majority committee (RLM) did not, for example, say: “Don’t vote for Rep. Rick Eddins, you Northeast Wake County voters, and do vote for Marilyn Avila, who works at the John Locke Foundation that my father and I have put so much money into.”

The RLM ads didn’t say that.

What they did say, however, was that “Rick Eddins broke ranks with Republicans” … “voted for $1 billion in new taxes” … “says he’s a Republican, but” … “wants to keep North Carolina voters in the dark” … (and) “it’s enough to make your eyes pop!”

They said it a lot, the Morgan complaint alleges: Pope’s two nonprofits spent at least $460,000 in five ’04 Republican primaries. How much they spent in ’06 is unknown thus far. (The SBOE has scheduled hearings in the Morgan-Pope case, starting Aug. 29. (See “Pope’s Purge,” below.)

There really isn’t a good answer to the rich-opponent problem, except to make him spread his money over more elections.

Because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions equating spending with free speech, there’s nothing stopping Pope, who is a conservative Republican, or some other wealthy activist on the liberal side, from “independently” spending as much money as they can spare, as long as they stay away from explicitly endorsing candidates.

But consider this: Just as Jim Black’s fundraising has greater impact the fewer “swing” elections there are, so, too, will an Art Pope’s money go farther in a few key primaries–especially when there’s no one in the other party on the ballot.

Problem #4: Rich activists with their own “independent” campaigns for or against a legislative candidate(s). Solution: There isn’t one, but public financing would help offset it, as would more competitive elections in the first place. This session: no action.

For years, reform groups like Democracy North Carolina and the N.C. Center for Voter Education have advocated public financing as an alternative way of running campaigns. Candidates could accept public funds, and agree to limit their spending and the amount of private money they could take, or they could run the old-fashioned way with money from special-interest contributors in essentially unlimited amounts.

North Carolina inaugurated a public-financing system for statewide judicial candidates in 2004, and most of them used it and liked it, according to the NCCVE’s Chris Heagarty, because it shielded them from any suspicion that they would favor their contributors once on the bench. But public financing for legislative campaigns has gone nowhere in the legislature, for obvious reasons. Why finance an opponent’s campaign when, under the good old-fashioned system, you probably won’t even have an opponent?

The reforms enacted in the 2005-06 session, including the “Government Ethics Act,” have been widely reported and earned a C+ from Democracy N.C.’s Hall. They established the first state ethics commission; will bar lobbyists, starting in 2007, from contributing their own money to candidates (clients’ money is still OK, however); and put a halt to the lavish meals and gifts that lobbyists were buying for legislators (however, “conference” meals are still OK).

Another reform measure will force nonprofits like the ones Pope employed to report their spending just like any other political committee–unless, that is, that rule is struck down on First Amendment grounds.

But the bill that would’ve established a trial of public financing in legislative campaigns–with four districts chosen as “pilots”–was squashed. And the one to establish a nonpartisan redistricting process (co-sponsored by Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, and the late Ham Horton, R-Forsythe) went nowhere as usual.

Nor did the “reforms” put any limits on the way a Jim Black can take special-interest funds, wash them through a party committee, and have them fed out to favored candidates in tight races.

He can’t earmark the money, of course. That’s not legal. But if, based on his experience, he should suggest which candidates need the money, and how much they need, and it comes out pretty much the way he said, well, there’s nothing illegal about that at all. It’s just politics.

And as far as political advocacy of the sort done by Art Pope, it’ll help to know who’s paying for the ads (and how much) before the campaign season is over. But defining the difference between robust political speech and special-interest advertising is, as a matter of constitutional principles, almost impossible, even if the average person “knows it when they see it.”

That’s a big reason why reformers want to give some candidates a chance to run against the special interests, using a sufficient, but limited, amount of public funding.

“Until candidates have a realistic source of ‘clean’ funds,” Hall says, “they will continue to rely on special-interest contributions that wind up cost the public billions of dollars in special favors.”

Now imagine, if you will, a different universe. Nonpartisan redistricting has eliminated political gerrymanders, and candidates from both parties are running in most of the districts around the state. They’re raising money, too–from their constituents. The voters are engaged.

A big reason they’re engaged is that some candidates are using public financing, and are eagerly soliciting small contributions that are then matched from public funds. Thus, voters are watching which candidates run “clean” and which don’t.

“We’ve got to get more voters involved,” says Rep. Grier Martin, now a board member of NCCVE. “How do we do that? Public financing is without a doubt part of the solution. We need to expand the number of competitive districts, which means reforming redistricting. And I think we need to limit campaign spending. That’s hard to do given what the Supreme Court has said, but in North Carolina, we haven’t even tried. I’m advocating that we push the limits a little.”

Or how about about State Democratic Party Chair Jerry Meek’s idea? Give every voter 4 chits worth $5 each, and let them “contribute” $5, $10, $15 or $20 to the candidates of their choice in legislative elections. “It would give voters a sense of investment in the process,” Meek says.

One million voters multiplied by $20 equals a maximum of $20 million in public funds every other year, which is about what’s spent now on legislative elections. Only now, it comes from the special interests, and it goes to a handful of districts, leaving most of the state’s voters out. We need to bring them back in.

The Big Problem: For most voters in North Carolina, the legislative elections are already over–there’s only one candidate on the ballot. Solution: Eliminate gerrymandering, add public campaign financing, and get the voters back in the game. Where they’re desperately needed. This session: forget it.

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