Marcel Proust delicately dipped a madeleine cookie into a cup of tea and the combination of taste and smell launched 3000 pages of involuntary reminiscence. My own, less belletristic memories are driven more by sight and especially sound -- a noise, a voice, a song.
One chorus of Aretha Franklin's "Think" and I'm back in a crumbling French military school called Lycee Michelet, among a bunch of other, callow American high school students, stuck for a week, sleeping on a row of hard, thin cots without pillows and with no hot water. At night, one of the other kids played the record of "Think" over and over, like a prison convict repeatedly blowing "Going Home" on the harmonica. Good times.
So it was the other day that, while in the shower (with hot water), a different memory was triggered. Booming from NPR on my bathroom radio came a distinctive voice I hadn't heard in more than 30 years.
It was Don DeFronzo. Back in 1972, during the last weeks of George McGovern's presidential bid, I was assigned to the city of New Britain, Connecticut, helping coordinate the campaign there and trying to assuage ill feelings between McGovern Democrats and the regular Democratic organization.
I stayed in a spare bedroom in the home of a guy named Tony Rocca and his wife. Their daughter Diane was married to Don DeFronzo (and still is). During those final days, we all spent a lot of time together, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing the get-out-the-vote drive, standing in the Rocca kitchen packing paper sack lunches for the volunteers.
Those in the know predicted we'd lose the state to Nixon by 100,000 votes. We proved them wrong -- we lost it by more than a quarter million.
Don went on to become mayor of New Britain. Three years ago, he was elected to the state senate, and this fall he was one of the leaders in the drive to pass what the Hartford Courant hailed as "the most far-reaching effort by any legislature in the nation to squeeze special interest money and influence out of political campaigns." Which is how Senator DeFronzo came to be on NPR.
Last Wednesday, Republican Governor M. Jodi Rell signed the bill into law. It's unprecedented, banning lobbyists and government contractors from contributing to state campaigns and political action committees. At the same time, it establishes a system of voluntary public financing of election campaigns with spending caps for candidates who accept those public funds. It will cost about $17 million a year, with the money coming from unclaimed properties, such as abandoned bank accounts that revert to the state.
In exchange for accepting spending limits, qualified gubernatorial candidates who raise $250,000 will receive up to $1.25 million in public funds for a primary race and $3 million for the general election. Legislative candidates who raise $5,000 will receive as much as $10,000 for the primary and $25,000 for the election.
I called Senator DeFronzo. He was excited, calling the legislation "a huge move forward, aggressive and comprehensive. We've ventured out into new territory. The environment was right for a sweeping set of reforms."
The Connecticut legislature's action came on the heels of a series of corruption scandals that sent both Governor John Rowland and State Treasurer Paul Silvester to prison, so there's more than a little political expedience and public relations behind the effort to clean house.
Nonetheless, there's no good reason for New York and other states not to follow Connecticut's example. On the battlefield of campaign finance reform, with the exception of Maine, Arizona and a couple of others, the rest of the states have been the quintessence of posturing and inertia. Connecticut's should be, as the New York Times editorialized, "an instant model for other statehouses where incumbents have long shown meager impulse to bite any insider's hand that feeds them."
True, the legislation needs to be road-tested in a real election cycle and that won't happen until the 2008 campaigns. There are loopholes to be closed and the rules for third party candidates need to be clarified. And, as has happened in the past, there will be First Amendment court challenges arguing that limiting contributions violates free speech.
I take to heart the words of the late, great Washington Post columnist Meg Greenfield. A number of years ago, she compared the pursuit of campaign finance reform to a British documentary she'd seen about the quest for a squirrel-proof birdfeeder. No matter how devilishly clever a system of wires, ropes and seemingly unbreachable drops and jumps was devised, the squirrels always figured out a way to get to the nuts and seeds.
But, she wrote, “We will only be diverted and misled if... we are holding out for the perfect, universally blessed reform. They don't come perfect, just as we don't. Our job is to decide which imperfections are tolerable, which trade-offs are likely to be safest and to do the job best. After all, no reform is forever, so we will likely have a chance to revisit and revise in about a decade. That's how long it takes humans. Squirrels are quicker.”
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York. He can be reached at BartlebyMW@aol.com.
©2005 Messenger Post Newspapers