Winston Churchill is credited with saying, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Observing campaign finance policy today, he could just as easily say, “Current campaign finance law is the worst form of electioneering, except for all the others.”
The Salt Lake Tribune recently ran stories about a fundraiser that Governor Gary Herbert hosted for his reelection campaign. As reported by an unnamed lobbyist, present at the fundraiser, Governor Herbert and his election team were eager, implicitly unethical, to raise money. Doubling down on the story, the Tribune oh-so-surprisingly got a hold of audio from the meeting seemingly confirming concerns.
Like clockwork, Governor Herbert’s libertarian opponent was quick to stir the pot when the audio was released. Jonathan Johnson is reported as saying, “I’m shaking, that tape makes me so mad. That’s what’s wrong with career politicians. They will do anything to stay in office…[it] just disgusts me. It may not be illegal under Utah law, but that’s not the threshold we should hold our governor to. It’s complete pay-for-play and it’s the kind of reason that non-politicians don’t run for office.”
His response to the fundraising story is how I imagine an emotionally naïve, sheltered little rich girl would respond at the sight of a pig being slaughtered. “That’s where sausage comes from? Oh gross!” But Johnson isn’t a naïve little girl.
Fundraising is a harsh political reality and charges of “pay-to-play” are easy to raise but extremely difficult to defend. Who do you think would have more influence with the state’s chief executive? A lobbyist trying her best to build a relationship with a policy maker in behalf of her client or a rich guy running for governor who phones a couple of his wealthy friends to bankroll the whole campaign? What’s a $5,000 donation to the governor from a lobbyist compared to one $250,000 donation from Johnson’s business partner? Well, I’ll tell you. The governor’s $5,000 donation is diluted by a thousand other small donations, while Johnson’s $250,000 donation from his business partner is half of his entire campaign chest.
Is it really a startling revelation that a candidate would say he would “go anywhere” to meet with donors? No serious officeholder would deny the effort. But neither would any honest businessman. Let’s put the shoe on the corporate foot. Would Jonathan Johnson fly to China to meet with investors interested in plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into his company? You bet he would. And how much time do you think he’d schedule for a one-share stockholder?
The processes of raising capital in the private sector are similar to the processes of fundraising for elective office. So is the potential influence. The only thing threatening the integrity of the deal is the integrity of the man. Nobody criticizes Donald Trump for the art of the deal. We criticize him because his character reeks of fraud.
Candidate Donald Trump and candidate Jonathan Johnson have a lot in common – pretentiousness, double standards, divided political loyalties, questionable motives in running for office and, yes, an otherwise very small circle of donors – but neither of them are calling for campaign finance reform. If Johnson wants to trade in his wealth advantage for raising money the old-fashioned way (the poor man’s way), he’s free to do it at any time.
Meanwhile, Utah gets campaign finance right. Keep it transparent and accountable. As long as campaign donations are reported accurately and publicly, Utah voters can decide for themselves who they trust. The Herbert fundraising story is a non-story. If there’s any actual wrongdoing, critics should state it. Otherwise, they should grow a pair.
Originally posted at KVNU’s for the people. Reposted with permission.