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It takes more than money to win an election

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 29, 2000


WASHINGTON -- Every time a wealthy guy such as Jon Corzine spends millions of dollars of his own money to run for president, governor or senator, there is a predictable outcry that he is "trying to buy public office."

Corzine, a former co-chairman of Goldman, Sachs & Co. whose wealth has been estimated at about $400-million, has spent nearly $25-million out of his own pocket in a race against former Gov. Jim Florio for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. By the primary on June 6, Corzine's personal expenditures could go much higher.

Florio, of course, is leading the chorus of hand-wringers who insist that Corzine's spending is unseemly. He not only has described Corzine as "the poster boy for campaign finance reform," but has also compared him to the "oligarchs in Russia who are buying places in power, buying the government."

Many campaign finance reform activists also are helping to promote Florio's point of view. Former Common Cause President Fred Wertheimer, who now runs the reform group Democracy 21, is among those who have called Corzine's spending excessive.

My advice to those of you who are worried about this kind of self-financed, big-spending candidate is, as they say in New Jersey, "fa-get it." Our democracy may have many warts, but it is still virtually impossible for a rich candidate without the necessary qualifications to buy an election by spending his own unlimited funds. If you could buy an election in this country, Steve Forbes would be president, Al Checchi would be governor of California and Michael Huffington and Mark Warner would be senators. They all spent vast quantities of their own money in unsuccessful bids. Of course, I'm not necessarily predicting that Corzine will lose his bid for the Democratic nomination or for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Frank Lautenberg. Some big spenders do get elected, among them Lautenberg himself. Instead, I am saying that no amount of spending will elect an unpopular candidate. It is reassuring to know that voters still control the decision-making.

Among the rich guys who have run for office with their own money in recent years, the one who seemed to have the easiest victory was Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wis., heir to a supermarket fortune. That's because Kohl was already known as a civic leader before he ran for office. Voters remembered him, among other things, as the guy who had saved the Milwaukee Bucks from moving. A few candidates also have succeeded in making a virtue of their wealth, as Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., did in 1998 when he used the slogan "nobody's senator but yours." But these are rare cases.

While it is true that candiates with deep pockets can afford the kind of television advertising blitz that is perhaps out of the reach of poorer contenders, these guys also are bucking a built-in bias among voters against rich candidates.

Who among us does not feel just a little bit resentful when someone with a whole lot more money comes around seeking our help? For that reason, their money may lose them as much support as it allows them to buy.

Furthermore, rich candidates often repeat some of the same mistakes.

The first mistake they typically make is to hire too many high-priced consultants, who then take control of everything. This instantly makes the candidate look like a pawn, and voters are remarkably good at sensing such weaknesses.

That is primarily why Huffington, a Republican oil millionaire, lost to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in 1994. The voters saw Huffington as a creation of his then wife, Arianna, and his expensive consulting staff -- an impression that was underscored several years later when one of his consultants, Ed Rollings, described him in a tell-all book as "such a complete cipher he gave empty suits a bad name."

Another common mistake of self-financed candidates is they spend too much money on unnecessary or frivolous things. Records show Forbes paid one of his consultants $223,000 in one month, Checchi continued to make high-priced media buys long after it was apparent he was going to lose, and Corzine's spending has included at least $11,000 for chauffeurs.

Of course, not all multimillionaires are foolish enough to spend their own money on their campaigns. Most well-heeled politicians -- including Florida's Sens. Connie Mack and Bob Graham -- have instead allowed other people to finance their campaigns.

In fact, rich candidates who get elected spending their own money unfailingly turn to special interests to finance their subsequent races. And some of them even hold fundraisers after they are elected to pay themselves back.

So I ask you: Why do so many people think it is better for a candidate to rely on special-interest donations than to spend his own money? Considering all the favors that special-interest donors often expect from the candidates in return for helping to elect them, I am not sure I understand why the public and the news media often paint independent, self-financed rich candidates as the bad guys.

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