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Spin Control: Election watchdogs scramble to keep up

SUNDAY, JAN. 16, 2011

OLYMPIA – Talk of election shenanigans in 2010 was second last week to talk of budget disasters for 2011, with legislators considering tweaking state campaign disclosure laws that allow average folks to know the source of money being spent to persuade them to vote for Candidate Schmoe or against Candidate Schmuck.

The state erects rules for people who give or take piles of campaign cash, much the way scientists erect walls in a maze to see if rats can find the way to the cheese. Research shows the rats quickly learn the fastest way through the maze, and if left alone for any length of time, chew through the walls to bypass the maze entirely.

This is not to suggest people who dump piles of cash into campaigns are equivalent to rats, as that’s unfair to rodents. Rather, it is to set up an analogy: Legislators seem intent on building a better maze, when what they need to do is to kick some rats out of it.

Last Thursday the Senate committee in charge of watching over elections (insert joke about foxes and henhouses here) discussed a bill to force better disclosure, allow steeper fines, and stop the rats from moving money from one vaguely named PAC to another in such a way that no one knows who paid for what until the election is over.

The bill was prompted by the 2010 primary in Snohomish County’s 38th District. Here’s a Cliff Notes version of the campaign disgrace du jour: Moxie Media, a campaign consulting firm, solicited money from people who wanted to defeat Jean Berkey, an incumbent Democratic senator, and ran a secret campaign to support Conservative Party candidate Rod Rieger, whom those donors would not, under any circumstances, want to serve in the Senate. They really wanted the other Democrat, Nick Harper. After Harper finished first, Rieger second and Berkey a close third in the primary, Harper coasted to an easy victory in the general election.

Much of Moxie Media’s appeal to normally strong Democratic supporters like the labor unions for a secret and clearly illegal tactic was put in e-mails that found their way to the Public Disclosure Commission. Moxie eventually ’fessed up and paid the fine. Although an attorney general’s investigation could bring more charges and penalties, the fine is being described as the cost of doing the business of electing Harper.

Most committee discussion revolved around the constitutionality and workability of new walls for the maze. But Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, seemed to lurch toward the bright light of truth with a non-legislative observation: “When I do business, if I find people cheat, I don’t do business with them.”

That could be part of a solution. But it would be naïve to assume no one will do business with a group that gets people elected by breaking campaign laws – unless it becomes sufficiently counterproductive.

So if Candidate Schmuck hires someone known to violate campaign laws, some measures should be legal and automatic. Opposing Candidate Schmoe should get 30 seconds on the evening news to proclaim disgust that Schmuck is using a company that violated the law. (It would be good for Schmoe to vet his own tacticians first.)

Campaign news stories should start with, “Candidate Schmuck, who is using a disgraced campaign consultant known for violating state laws, said today …” Newspapers that editorialized for readers to vote Schmuck should write two editorials un-endorsing him: one on the day ballots are mailed and another the Sunday before Election Day.

Groups that announced support for Schmuck should revoke it; donors who gave money could demand it back with interest. If they don’t remove support, they too should be labeled as supporters of candidates who hire people who break campaign laws.

It’s true these consultants are sometimes employed by independent groups, and Schmuck could argue in that case he’s not involved and shouldn’t be held liable. Too bad. Under the time-honored American tradition of guilt by association, if an independent group is trying to get you elected, you suffer for their bad decisions just as much as you can benefit from their ads.

A person who lies with dogs knows he may get up with fleas. A candidate who throws in with rats should worry about getting up with bubonic plague.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at blogs/spincontrol.

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