Sunday, February 7, 2010

Endorsements: Blind leading the blind?

It was recently reported that the Pennsylvania Democratic Party's State Committee would not be endorsing any candidate for governor in the upcoming gubernatorial contest.  The Times Herald article indicated that 'two separate votes failed to produce the necessary two-thirds majority for any of the candidates'. 

While this outcome may be more a function of the fact that this weekend's blizzard prevented many of the committeepeople from making it to the meeting, rather than being unable to agree on any one candidate to endorse, it does raise a good question, one I've wanted to write about for awhile now:  why does either party bother to endorse candidates for a primary? Doesn't that defeat the reason we even have primaries in the first place?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the noun 'primary' in this context as "a caucus, an election in which qualified voters nominate or express a preference for a particular candidate or group of candidates for political office, choose party officials, or select delegates for a party convention".

Voters. Choose.  So...if a primary is supposed to be open, wherein any interested candidates throw their hats into the ring and allow the voters to select a winner by virtue of a majority of votes cast, why do parties go the trouble of endorsing candidates? 

The problem I and others have with the concept of 'endorsement' is  that it allows a few people -- very early in the election process - to make decisions that affect the majority, to be 'kingmakers'. While this is the very essence of the political system in general, in that we elect a few to represent the majority, it was never meant to apply to primaries. It smacks of an attempt at controlling the outcome.

Aside from other problems with the primary system (which have only been a wide national practice since about 1968), the primary election itself was meant to be an opportunity for the voters to directly express a preference and determine which candidate we the people want to 'promote' as the nominee to represent them against the other party for specific offices. Too many people blindly rely on an endorsed candidate as the only one worth considering.

I say 'blindly', because it's a mystery as far as knowing exactly what criteria these kingmakers use to evaluate candidates' worthiness and suitability for the office they are seeking.  Are there party standards? Are there individual guidelines? Are there ANY at all? Seriously - if you know, educate me. I've tried to do my homework and find out, to no avail. 

I also say 'blindly' because endorsements have become a tool that has enabled voters to be lazy and not take the time to educate themselves about individual candidates and their platforms, instead choosing to abdicate that job to committepeople, who theoretically are more informed. And maybe some are, but I know more than a few of them, and I wouldn't trust some of them to find their own way home, let alone know best who would represent my political viewpoints at any given time, especially since they're almost never seen or heard from unless it's time for them to run for re-election. 

And this isn't a swipe at committeepeople, per se;  I know several across multiple municipalities who are intelligent, involved, hardworking, and in touch with their constituents. I do trust their opinions. Unfortunately, they're in the minority. Committeepeople have other functions within their respective parties, and most perform them well. I'm suggesting endorsements shouldn't be one of them.

The problem with local committeepeople endorsing candidates in the primary is that in some instances, they are political 'insiders' who owe others political favors or loyalty, and thus vote the way they are told; support candidates who can be controlled; or who vote for whoever they think is best for the party and not necessarily what is representative of the people. 

All I've observed is that the committee people may (or may not bother to) go to a meeting where the candidate makes a brief pitch for the office - and may or may not be softballed questions - may or may not read any printed material about the candidate - and then a selection is made.  Many times, it's not unanimous. It leaves committeepeople who prefer an unendorsed candidate in the position of having to work to support the campaigns of candidates they don't believe in. It's a lot easier to do when you are asked to support a candidate in the general election that has survived the primary on his own, unendorsed, as the result of the will of the people and not the will of committeepeople.

Since it so often seems that we take these folks' advice, and vote for whomever they choose to bless with their endorsement, and then realize we don't like who we voted in or their policies or agenda (or worse, that they've turned out to be crooks), why do we continue to participate in this process and trust the judgment of people we barely know about candidates they barely know?  If we truly want more responsible people in office, people that actually represent who we are and what we stand for, why don't we eliminate the endorsement process entirely?

Frankly, I'm pretty much at the point in my own party here in Lower Providence where I want to support whomever they DON'T endorse.

It's really our responsibility as citizens to educate ourselves about anything that requires our trust or our money, and it's a responsibility we increasingly abdicate to others.  What's that old computer programming phrase, 'Garbage In, Garbage Out'??

A whole separate issue is: should whom the state committees choose to endorse, if anyone, override what each county's, borough's and township's Democrat and Republican committes would like to do?  Sometimes a local municipality wants to endorse a candidate, but the state or county level party has already chosen someone else, and they fear fallout if they are seen as being out of lockstep with the 'party line'.

I think I'd much prefer independent thinkers over mindless robots who do what they told and are too afraid to 'make waves'.  Even more, I'd prefer to see completely open primaries with no endorsed candidates. As Sarah Palin said yesterday in her speech to the tea party coalition "Contested primaries aren't civil war; they're democracy at work and that's beautiful."

Monday, February 1, 2010

Corporate Campaign Donations - Right, Wrong or Indifferent?

As we all heard last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down what seemed to many to be an illogical decision regarding corporate campaign donations, which is now the law of the land and controlling law over lower court decisions and appeals.

I can understand the logic, although I don't necessarily agree with it. Corporations were seen as separate entities with a protected right of free speech, just like individuals. The Court felt that a corporation's free speech rights could also be expressed via donations of money to campaigns of candidates for elected office.

This ruling, of course, meant that the McCain-Feingold legislation proposing campaign finance reform is dead on the federal level. I think this ruling is a game-changer, and will take campaigning, particularly for state and federal elected offices, to a new high (or low) we've never seen before. It may mean that whoever can get the most money spent on them will win - essentially ensuring that elections can be bought.

I also think that whoever gets elected to office will be beholden to all kinds of special interest industries and companies who will most likely expect some return on their investment. Of course, adding insult to injury, they can probably deduct their donations from their corporate tax returns, too - so taxpayers will be underwriting this corporate courting of our elected officials.

We can change this on the state level by encouraging our elected state reps to introduce and pass legislation governing campaigns in state and local campaigns. However, since that's not yet the case - corporations are free to write and fund ads that support any candidate's campaign.

Ironically, this ruling may impact the litigation filed last year by J.P. Mascaro & Sons against the winners of the fall 2009 election for the Lower Providence Board of Supervisors, Colleen Eckman and Don Thomas. 

To recap, during that campaign, Colleen and Don and their committees allegedly (I'm going to use 'allegedly' a lot here folks, there's a lot of litigation and counter-litigation flying around in this case) issued a 'smear mailer' right before the primary, alleging that the two strong candidates running against them, Craig Dininny, an incumbent supervisor, and Jim Dougherty, a former supervisor running again, had improperly accepted campaign donations from Mascaro (the corporation) and three other township vendors, when in fact they had only accepted (legal) donations from several individual employees of J.P. Mascaro and those other vendors.

Those same individuals from those same companies that were allegedly accused of wrongdoing along with Craig and Jim also donated money to the Lower Providence Republican Committee, which they in turn gave to the campaigns of....Colleen and Don.  No allegedly needed here; it's in their Committee's campaign expense reports and the Republican Committee's minutes and financial statements.

The smear mailer is widely believed to be the main reason Craig and Jim lost the primary.

J.P. Mascaro was not happy to be accused, via the alleged mailer alleging something they had not done, and, to defend their corporate reputation,  filed suit in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas against Colleen, Don and their respective committees. That litigation is still ongoing.

Even IF Craig and Jim had accepted those campaign donations as Colleen and Don alleged they were made - by corporations, not individuals working for those corporations, it may now be viewed in a better light.

I know Craig and Jim well, and I know they are the kind of people who like to do things by the book. They have had opportunities to do the wrong thing and did not. In this case, their campaign did nothing wrong and even declined to use negative information in their campaign against Colleen and Don - preferring instead to take the high road and run a clean campaign, free of negativity, and instead focusing on the positive things they'd accomplished for the community.

That choice likely cost them the election, but I know they sleep just fine at night.

Time will tell what the impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling is on this case, if any, but I have to wonder if J.P. Mascaro (and Craig and Jim) are feeling a little bit  vindicated these days.