May The Best Fund-Raiser Win?

In recent news reports, US Representative Don Young of Alaska has been accused of securing $10 million to help build a highway offramp in Florida -- a project that would increase the value of several thousand acres of land owned by a Michigan builder who in turn raised $40,000 for Mr. Young. But this is just one point on a continuum. A number of congressmen have been indicted, and governors have served time in prison, for abusing their public trust.

Clearly, the way we finance elections is undermining our democracy.

The current campaign finance system forces good people to spend far too much time talking to narrow slices of our society and at the expense of focusing on the nation's business. Only the wealthiest citizens or special interests can provide the enormous amounts of money required to run for or stay in office. Even the most trusting among us must recognize the potentially corrupting incentives that this creates.

Campaigns have increasingly become a race for money as costs have escalated. The result is that very few people can afford to run, thereby discouraging many good people from seeking elective office.

There is a better way that is embodied in the Senate Fair Elections Now Act recently introduced by Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter. Representative John Tierney of Massachusetts, along with Representatives Raul Grijalva and Todd Platts, introduced companion legislation in the House.

Under this bipartisan proposal, candidates raise a large number of small donations to show their credibility with the public and then qualify for a set amount of public money for their campaigns. The legislation is modeled after clean-election laws in seven states, including Arizona and Maine, where the systems have been running well for four election cycles. (Massachusetts had a similar law, but it was repealed.)

We ought not to be electing the best fund-raisers. More good people, under this legislation, could seek office by doing the hard work of connecting with thousands of voters, rather than raising money from just those who can write big checks. One strength of the proposal is that a candidate must demonstrate public support in order to qualify for public money.

Over the years, I have given large sums of money to elect candidates of competence and compassion of both parties. Ironically, I designated my funds to those who would end the ability of people like me to give large contributions to political parties. My own special interest is to get special-interest money out of the political process. The influence of that money indirectly costs taxpayers far more than the costs of liberating the electoral process from the special-interest lobbyists.

Just because I've been in a position to contribute doesn't mean I should have more say in who gets elected. Under the Fair Elections Now Act, everyone will have the same ability to finance elections by making a $5 qualifying contribution to help a candidate receive public funding.

Thomas Jefferson warned future generations that economic interests could overwhelm the political process. Sadly, the number of elected officials accused or convicted of abusing their public trust in recent times has given credence to his concerns.

Fair elections would restore confidence in the system and tell all Americans they are equal participants in our democracy.

Arnold Hiatt, former CEO of Stride Ride, is chairman of the Stride Rite Foundation.

(c) 2007 The Boston Globe

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