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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

NY Metro: Blame Voters for High Cost of Campaigns

October 17, 2005
Metro Matters
Blame Voters for High Cost of Campaigns

YESTERDAY morning, after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg recited his list of first-term accomplishments during an appearance in Brooklyn, a reporter asked why he was spending a piece of his personal fortune on his campaign if he was so confident of his record.

"What I'm trying to do is to get a message out to every single community in this city, to every one of the 8.1 million people that live here, of what we've accomplished," the mayor answered. "It's just hard to communicate with everybody."

For an incumbent mayor in media-clogged New York to suggest he has communications problems is like George Clooney saying he struggles to get a date. More likely, the mayor lavishly bankrolls his campaign, swamping the spending of his Democratic opponent, Fernando Ferrer, because he can.

As a billionaire, he spends what he wants (which could be $100 million by Election Day) just as two multimillionaires, Douglas R. Forrester and Jon S. Corzine, have shattered spending records in New Jersey in their bids for governor.

Some wealthy candidates lose anyway. But once the United States Supreme Court equated spending one's own money on politics to free speech, which rich candidate was going to risk underspending?

Critics call the spending unfair, obscene and obnoxious, and it surely is offensive to many people. But the profligate spending of rich candidates is not the cause of the country's out-of-control campaign system. It's a symptom, and not the only one.

Candidates without personal wealth have to sell their souls to raise money and solicit support. Is it any less obscene when Gov. George E. Pataki buys the votes of a health workers' union with public funds, pledging to raise wages in exchange for an endorsement? Is it preferable that candidates lean on contributors to whom they will be obligated?

The alternative to Bloombergian spending is not a clean democracy, merely a different kind of obscenity. The real villain of this piece, we would like to suggest, is us. The voters.

Campaigns are not spending an average of 60 percent of their resources on the airwaves by accident. Voters say they object to those 30-second exercises in persuasion. But they respond to them. And the ads cost plenty - the personal resources of rich candidates. Otherwise it's public money, union money, industry money and other-people-seeking-favors money.

Critics say the Bloombergs of politics should voluntarily cut back. Some rich incumbents do. But if a wealthy candidate is convinced that spending money will equal victory, urging restraint can be like telling a child to eat just one slice of a large pizza. Critics of the current system favor giving opponents of wealthy candidates more public dollars. New York City, which has a voluntary system of public financing, already does that to a modest extent, but as of 10 days ago, Mr. Bloomberg had spent close to $50 million of his own money on his campaign - seven times Mr. Ferrer's spending. How much will the taxpayer be willing to donate to politics?

FRED WERTHEIMER, an advocate of strong campaign finance laws, favors free or low-cost TV time to mitigate the impact of personal wealth. "There are powerful interests, mainly in the broadcast industry, who make a fortune now from political campaigns," he said. "Can you address these problems? Yes. Is it very hard to do so? Yes. But that is not a basis for not continuing the battle."

Political advertising is a golden goose. It supports a layered subculture of experts, specialists in polling, in market research, in ethnic and racial voting patterns. There are consultants, technicians, creative teams, time buyers and ad specialists at the television stations, which profit handsomely in campaign season.

Records at just one New York station, WABC-TV, show that from last Tuesday to yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg's campaign spent $371,150 on 92 ads that cost as much as $10,800 for 30 prime-time seconds. Mr. Ferrer's campaign, at a sharp financial disadvantage and conserving resources for later in the campaign, spent $60,600 on 28 ads in the last week.

Consider how many people profited from those commercials at one TV station and it becomes apparent that the exorbitant advertising isn't going anywhere, with or without the vanity spending of billionaires.

It's hard to see what could change that. Other, of course, than the ads losing their power over the very people who perpetuate them, the voters.


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