(U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – In the past few days, Gov. James S. Gilmore III has received quite a bit of flack for taking time to fatten the Republican Party’s campaign treasure chest.
Gilmore, some Democrats claim, should not be using his office’s bully pulpit to advance his own partisan concerns. They also argue, conveniently, that Gilmore’s on-going spree of high-profile fundraising events illustrates the decrepit state of Virginia’s campaign finance laws.
With congressional and state elections looming on the horizon, Democrats fear the GOP juggernaut soon may gain a majority in both houses of the General Assembly. It surely seems in their best interest, then, to excoriate Gilmore for unethical campaigning.
Gilmore is known for his prowess on the campaign trail. But the historical record proves that his actions are not all that unique. In 1995, Republican Gov. George Allen heavily polarized state elections along partisan lines, as did former Democratic Gov. L. Douglas Wilder before him.
Limited to only one term in office, Virginia’s governors are lame ducks from the start. What future hopes they have for their term in office largely depend on their ability to boost partisan support in the General Assembly.
As the non-incumbent party, Democrats realize they are at a disadvantage in the pursuit of donations from special interests. It is likely they chose to use the issue of campaign finance reform as election ’98 fodder.
Serious discussion of campaign reform unfortunately has been rekindled for matters of political expedience. But the issue still warrants a thorough discussion.
Virginia is among a small number of states that do not impose limits on the amount of money an individual may donate to a candidate. Instead, Virginia law requires all candidates fully disclose the source of all donations, and the amount of each contribution.
Critics are correct to point out that the extremely wealthy garner more political influence under this system. For example, televangelist Pat Robertson donated $50,000 to Gilmore’s campaign last year. His son, Tim Robertson, soon was appointed to the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors.
The negative consequences of donation limits also impose particular obstacles to running a fair election. On the federal level, where donors cannot offer more than $2,000 to an individual candidate during an election cycle, these large donors simply circumvent election regulations by giving instead to the candidate’s party.
These “soft money” donations annually blow the roof off candidates’ coffers, making donation restrictions more of a nice idea than a reality. In addition, campaign finance limitations force candidates to spend far more of their time scrambling for money than representing their constituency.
During the present campaign, both parties should de-politicize the issue of campaign finance reform and seek a compromise of these two approaches that does not try to cleanse campaigns of all corruption, but make them fairer.
First, legislators should join a non-profit consortium, the Virginia Public Access Project, in making disclosed campaign information more accessible to the average voter.
Second, both parties should consider enacting a donation limit. The limit needs to be large enough to accommodate wealthy contributors and small enough to prevent the purchasing of political influence. Hopefully, the current trend of enormous campaign donations will offer reformers reason enough to move ahead.
-Staff editorial from the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily.