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No thanks, PAC man


The Top Story by Chris Graham
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Poll: Should candidates for public office take money from PACs and lobbyists representing special-interest groups?

Presumptive Democratic Party presidential nominee Barack Obama has ruffled some feathers with his ban on campaign contributions from PACs and lobbyists. Sixth District Democratic Party congressional nominee Sam Rasoul has done something of the same thing here in the Shenandoah Valley with his own ban on those types of contributions.

“If you cut out the PACs, what it says is that people who have money can advance out their interests a lot better than people who don’t,” said Linda Wyatt, the acting chair of the Sixth District Democratic Committee, which has been left on the contribution sidelines by Rasoul’s own ban on contributions from PACs and party committees in the Sixth District.

“What you’re acknowledging when you’re a challenger, and you’re saying you’re not going to take PAC money, and your opponent, the incumbent, is taking PAC money, is that there’s going to be an unlevel playing field, and you’re saying that your principle is stronger than your need to raise money through those avenues,” said Tom Long, the chair of the Augusta County Democratic Committee, which is also being left on the sidelines by the Rasoul committee-money ban.

Rasoul, for his part, is worried about the potential for abuse of the system that accepting contributions from PACs and party committees could allow to happen. “We’ve been campaigning now for 17 months, and you’re right, from the very beginning, we chose not to take money from PACs or lobbyists,” Rasoul told me. “I had to take a serious look at the system, and I realized that, listen, McCain-Feingold, the way it’s structured, to me, is almost a joke, because the way for those that have the funds to give it to candidates is through PACs. So I made a decision that I’m not only going to stand for systemic reform, but I’ve got to put my actions where my words are. So we’ve had to turn down tens of thousands of dollars already in PAC money, but we’re very proud of that, and very proud to be able to stand for something different, and not to be hypocritical in our message.”

“I don’t want somebody to give money to the party, and then the party giving the money to us. I don’t want there to be any loopholes here. I want to be able to confidently stand up in front of the people and tell them that I’m against this type of corruption. I want the person that’s making a million dollars a year to have the same influence and the same voice as the person making $30,000 a year,” Rasoul said.

Obama brought national attention to the fund-raising issue at a campaign stop earlier this month in Northern Virginia when he said that lobbyists have not funded his campaign for president and “will not fund our party,” either. (Listen to a webcast of his June 5 speech here.) The Democratic National Committee is following Obama’s lead and is not taking PAC money for the remainder of the 2008 campaign cycle. But significantly, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee have indicated that they will continue to accept donations from PACs and lobbyists in the ’08 campaign cycle.

The difference of opinion on the matter reflects the different responsibilities of the entities involved. “The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may be more interested in winning than principle,” University of Mary Washington political scientist Steve Farnsworth told me.

“Those committees have to spread money out to a lot of races around the country. And Republicans traditionally have been better funded than Democrats. So Democrats in the House and Senate are very concerned about not being outspent. That’s less of a concern for Obama, who of course was able to generate far more money in this election cycle than any candidate from either party. When the money is coming in by the barrel, you don’t need to worry about PAC money,” Farnsworth said.

But if you’re a Sam Rasoul fighting a straight-uphill battle against a well-funded incumbent like Bob Goodlatte, you can probably use every dollar that you can get your hands on. Right? If only that money were to be made available to the Sam Rasouls of the world, of course. The rule of thumb is that upstart challengers aren’t likely to get any PAC and lobbyist money at all given that incumbents in congressional races win on the order of 90 percent of the time that they run for re-election.

In that context, then, maybe it’s not bad politics, Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd told me, for Rasoul to publicly turn down PAC money as a matter of principle, because it’s not going to come his way, anyway.

“Now, if I’m a Democratic challenger to a well-entrenched Republican member of Congress, let me see if I can do the same thing. Let me see if I can ride on the coattails of a Barack Obama and say that I, too, am the candidate of change, I, too, am not going to take PAC money. Now, why I am going to do that as a challenger? Because a, the people are in a mood for change. So if you’re the change candidate, then your opponent must not be. But number two, as a Democratic challenger challenging a long-term Republican incumbent, you’re not going to get much PAC money, anyway. So it’s not hurting him, either. It does make a lot of sense, if you think about it that way, to take that kind of position,” Kidd said.

If it isn’t hurting Rasoul to take the position he has taken on PAC and committee money, it isn’t likely to help him all that much, just the same.

“I think it energizes some activists. I don’t think it resonates much one way or the other with most voters,” said Long, a retired high-school government teacher who has also been active in the Augusta County Education Association and its PAC. Wyatt has also been involved in teachers PACs in the Sixth District over the years, and like Long has a different view of their role in the political process. “I remember when there weren’t PACs. And when there weren’t any PACs, what you had was the very wealthy controlling everything. A lot of PACs were formed so that average people could get involved in politics,” Wyatt said.

“I helped form my PAC, a teachers PAC here in Roanoke, 25 years ago. And that was because individually teachers couldn’t come up with the kind of money to have any kind of impact on our race or make any kind of difference for our candidates. But I could take my $10 a month and give it to my PAC, and other people did, and all of the sudden, you had the ability to impact a race,” Wyatt said.

“I see PACs as a way of leveling the playing field between the common man and the very wealthy,” Wyatt said.

Rasoul understands the arguments of his critics, but his is a principled stand.

“And maybe it sounds a little bit cheesy, but you really can’t put a price on certain principles,” Rasoul said. “And this is really the whole essence of why I’m running. I want people to really realize the need for systemic reforms that we need. It will take some time. It’s going to take some hard work. But we’re talking about an America 50 years from now.”



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