There Ought to be a Law …
Common Cause Maryland’s Bobbie Walton
interviewed by Sandra Olivetti Martin
With scandal in the air, Common Cause Maryland renews the drive for publicly financed campaigns
By mid-April, lawmakers will have floated some 2,000 new ways to regulate how we live and breathe and do business in Maryland, from whether we must wear helmets when driving motorcycles to how much poisonous mercury power plants can spew from their smokestacks into our lungs.
All of those legislative ideas matter urgently to someone, or lobbyists wouldn’t have the kind of vast wealth and power we’ve seen spotlighted in the fall of Washington super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and others around him. As the new General Assembly convenes in Annapolis, we are asking players and watchdogs to talk about their hopes for this session, their motivations and how we the people, not special interests, might benefit.
First, Bobbie Walton, the new executive director of Common Cause Maryland, explains why there ought to be a law expanding public financing of political campaigns in Maryland.
Bay Weekly What is Common Cause Maryland?
Bobbie Walton Common Cause was founded in 1970 by John Gardner to lobby for the people. We’re the only organization that does what we do. In one way and another, I’ve worked with Common Cause Maryland for 12 years. Now as executive director, I’m chief cook and bottle washer.
Bay Weekly What motivates you?
Bobbie Walton When people recognize that government really belongs to them, and when they are shown how to use the skills to let the government know what they want, change does take place.
The public is the ultimate overseer. We’re now close to reaching a tipping point where people express more outrage and bring more pressure on public officials.
Bay Weekly What’s your number one priority in this General Assembly?
Bobbie Walton Public funding of campaigns.
Bay Weekly What difference can that make to citizens?
Bobbie Walton The money that comes into politics is corrupting.
We have 10 months to go until people choose a governor, senators, delegates and many other local officials.
People are not happy with the candidates they get. Why should I vote? The candidates are so lousy.
Candidates are typically people who have already got influence in parts of our society that have a lot of money to give. People give money because it buys them access. It means they can elect people who share their interests. They may not corrupt anyone, but they will pay for the election of people who share their interests.
If they’re interested in relaxed zoning laws, for example, then the community suffers.
If we get public funding, then the average person who can generate support in a community and demonstrate that support can qualify for funding.
So public funding broadens the possibility of having more interests on the ballot.
Bay Weekly How does public funding work?
Bobbie Walton Candidates qualify by gathering small contributions from a quarter of one percent of registered voters in their district. They can also raise seed money last year the limit was $10,000 that would go to the expenses of establishing their candidacy.
All the money would be accounted for, and any left over from administrative costs would go into a common pot.
For each race and campaign, primary or general, and depending on whether there is a challenger, set amounts are established in the law.
If candidates take the money, they must agree to spending limits and not to raise any more money. But if a challenger or incumbent who chooses not to use public funds exceeds that amount, there’s a provision in the law for the opposing candidate to come back for further funding.
Bay Weekly Doesn’t Maryland have some public funding of campaigns now?
Bobbie Walton We have a public fund for candidates running for governor. It was only used once to my knowledge, and that was by Ellen Sauerbrey in 1994 [see “The Governor’s Money Man,” Vol. xiv, No. 2: Jan. 12]. It has a dedicated funding source. If you go to the tax form, there is an add-on of $1 that is dedicated to that fund.
So there is money in it. But given the amount of money gubernatorial candidates are raising right now, I don’t see how one would be inspired to adhere to the spending limits that go with public money.
Bay Weekly Are there other places public funding is working?
Bobbie Walton It’s in place and working in Maine, Arizona and Connecticut. In Connecticut it passed a few weeks ago as part of a larger campaign-financing bill after their governor pled guilty to a corruption charge. It was another case of public outrage over a public official taking money to advance his own style of living.
A similar thing happened in Massachusetts, but the state legislature refused to fund the system.
Bay Weekly How much would public funding cost?
Bobbie Walton In the last legislative session, there was an estimate of a $27 million cost over a four-year period.
Bay Weekly Where would we get the money?
Bobbie Walton Connecticut created a dedicated source of funding, unclaimed property; we’re suggesting that Maryland follow. In addition, I think we’re going to find we need a check-off on Maryland tax forms. The qualifying money raised by candidates is also mixed in a common pot.
Bay Weekly What chance does public funding have in Maryland?
Bobbie Walton The difficulty we have in Maryland is that we do not have the power of initiative and referendum, as Maine and Arizona did. So it would have to come out of legislature, We have a network of supporters we’re seeking to expand. In the Senate, Paul Pinsky has sponsored legislation over several years. In the House, we’re talking to Jon Cardin and other cosponsors.
Bay Weekly What value would we citizens buy by paying for political campaigns?
Bobbie Walton We’d open up the narrow field of candidates to people who are not taking money and who don’t have to show preference. It makes it easier for elected officials to remain above the fray. So it opens up the possibility for candidates to be more independent.
Bay Weekly So it all comes down to the fact that lobbyists and funders now have a more intimate relationship than we do with the people we elect to represent us?
Bobbie Walton Common Cause founder John Gardner said everyone’s organized but the people. I’m paid to lobby for the people. There are a lot of other lobbyists for non-profit organizations who do the same.
There are a lot of others who lobby for development interests or to get the law changed to favor their particular bird or dog. There’s an interest for everything. If I’m paid to do that, the first thing I want to do is establish a relationship with the lawmaker so they know me by sight, know my name and who I represent.
An advertising guru said that in order to reach the public, you have to reach the reptilian brain, what I would call the subconscious mind, which means if someone likes you or has a personal contact, there’s something about that personal contact. A lobbyist already has established that relationship. If you are also able to take them to dinner or help them go gambling on a riverboat or take them to a Redskins game or buy a wedding present for their daughter and all the things that lobbyists do, then you endear yourself even more. If you have laws that allow that, you really put both the lobbyist and the elected official in a bind.
Bay Weekly What do you do for the people you’re lobbying?
Bobbie Walton I smile and I tell them a joke.