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"Professional" politics and "special interests"

by Gail Robinson

23 October 00

Rep. Rick Lazio wants you to know that he is trying to stop "special interests" who want "to buy a U.S. Senate seat in New York." Certainly special interests, as the term is commonly used, have helped Hillary Clinton, who has raised almost $300,000 in direct contributions from labor political action committees alone.

But her Republican opponent is no slouch. Business groups have given him more than a million dollars. And despite a sometimes moderate voting record, he has struck gold with conservative groups such as the Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Clinton, which sees the First Lady as "an angry woman. . . obsessed with imposing her radical-left vision on the rest of America." Most American politicians, even on school boards, get special-interest money. Those who dont are seen as sure losers or, like Democratic Senate candidate Jon Corzine of New Jersey, are too rich to need it.

The prominent role of well-heeled special interests is yet another indication, some say, that professionals are taking over politics. While average citizens may join or contribute to professional and advocacy groups, the game these groups play is not for amateurs. Instead, the organizations often rely on highly trained operatives -- political consultants (See Phil Lentz's "The Power Behind the Candidate") -- who target voters, design ad campaigns and even help determine which candidates are worthy of assistance. Then too, the money these interests gives to candidates allows politicians to hire still more consultants and pollsters.

The prominence of special interests, some argue, adds to the vitality of election debates and forces important issues into the political arena. Critics, though, counter that these groups have put too much power in the hands of rich interests and made politics dangerously parochial. Much of the renewed debate over campaign finance reform is, at heart, a debate over the power of the special interests.


Special interest is a loaded term. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, believes all citizens "belong to one special interest or another." But Jack Freeman was closer to capturing the public mood when he wrote for Earth Times News Service, "When candidates speak of "special interests," they are always referring to the bad guys . . . . The special interests are the forces that distort and debase democracy by buying or otherwise attaining influence by improper means."

Special interests can be loosely divided into three categories: those tied to business, the ones linked to labor and the so-called ideological groups. The first two, although they may work on many issues, operate out of a kind of enlightened self-interest. So business political action committees tend to support candidates who will help their industry and labor those who advance what union leaders see as the interests of their members.

The ideological groups range from those involved in a broad array of matters -- ones that support generally liberal or conservative politicians -- to those that focus on a single issue such as abortion or gun control. The latter groups are often cited for promoting "single issue politics" in which candidates are judged by one or two votes rather than on their range of positions and accomplishments.


It is almost impossible to quantify how important such groups are to a campaign's success or failure. But the experts think they can be key. One recent study of the media industry's political clout, for example, cited its donations to members of Congress and success in blocking proposals to require that television stations provide free air time to candidates.

The president of the Michigan AFL-CIO says union members were responsible for putting that state in the Clinton column in the 1996 presidential election.

Whether that is true or not, the other side does not want to take a chance. So, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce this year decided to mount an effort to counter labor. "How could we not?" the group's president, Thomas J. Donahue, told reporters in January.

In New York state and city politics, real estate interests have traditionally played such a large role that it has often been said that "tenants have the votes but landlords have the money" and hence the power. Now, in an effort to level the field, two New York City political action committees for tenants are trying to shift the balance of power in the state senate.

Special-interest groups have probably helped set the agenda for this year's presidential election. Earlier this year, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications, noted that a group created by the pharmaceutical industry and called Citizen for Better Medicare had spent almost as much on advertising as the Democratic Party, making it in effect a third party. Its ads on the prescription drug issue have been seen in many of the so-called battleground states, putting the issue of seniors and medicine in the thick of this year's political debate.


Much of what special interests offer is cash. But they also provide expertise and voters.

Even business thinks labor is particularly good at that. The teacher's union is a prized ally because, not only do teachers vote, but, because of their education and role in the community, they can often influence their neighbors. To press its advantage on getting out the vote in Michigan, the most recent United Autoworkers contract gives its member's Election Day off -- all the better to get themselves and others with similar views to the polls This year, such efforts have moved to another level. Groups such as the National Rifle Association and the National Abortion Rights Action League are seeking out non-members who might support their issues on Election Day. The NRA has bought lists of pickup truck owners, gun show exhibitors and people who read outdoor magazines. NARAL has a profile of a pro choice voter and is now seeking out non-members who fit that profile.


The prominence of special interests is almost certainly linked to the ever higher cost of campaigns. According to the Committee for Economic Development, in the 22 years between 1976 and 1998, the average cost of a Senate race rose from $596,000 to $3.8 million and for a House race from $73,000 to more than $500,000.

Then too these groups have flourished in the atmosphere created by the campaign reforms of the 1970s and subsequent court decisions. While individual and group contributions to specific candidates are limited, the Supreme Court ruled that so-called "issue ads" cannot be restricted. So, while ads saying "Vote for Rick Lazio," are subject to contribution limits, those saying "Hillary Clinton would make it impossible for you to choose your own doctor" are not. Many of the "issue ads" are placed by special interests. Federal law also allows groups and individuals to make unlimited "soft money" contributions to political parties for so-called "party building". Special interests with their deep pockets, have been able to leap into this loophole Issue advertisements and soft money have emerged as big issues in the New York Senate campaign.

Given the closeness of the race and its high profile, special interests have poured into New York this year. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the groups supporting Clinton include the AFL-CIO, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, the National Abortion Rights Action League, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Sierra Club. In Lazio's corner are the American Conservative Union, the American Political Action Committee, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Coalition for a Better America and the Republican Jewish Coalition. Lazio got soft money support from a number of Republican and Conservative party groups, while Clinton received aid from the Democratic, Liberal and Working Family parties. And of course, special interest give direct hard money too.

Special interest dollars go to low-visibility candidates too. Brooklyn Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns faced a spirited, though unsuccessful primary challenge this year. Perhaps that explains why the veteran representative raked in about $425,000 in political action committee contributions as of Aug.3, including $8,000 from tobacco companies, $130,000 from finance, insurance and real estate firms, and $94,000 from labor.


Politicians, of course, deny that they can be bought. Contributions are "one of those things that you just don't pay attention to. It just doesn't affect your decision-making," New York State Senate Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Nassau County, has said.

Many voters, though, would probably agree more with Alexander Grannis, a Democratic state assemblyman from Manhattan, who has commented, "When somebody gives you money, you pay attention to them, Its human nature."


The Shays-Meehan and McCain-Feingold bills, which have been proposed in Congress but never passed, would abolish soft money and "bring phony issue ads under the contribution limitation and disclosure requirements of federal election law". They have been embraced by a variety of organizations, including Common Cause.

But critics, ranging from some conservative organizations to the American Civil Liberties Union, charge that limits on advocacy groups infringe on freedom of speech.

In testimony before Congress, Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLUs Washington office, noted that restricting the media's ability to set news coverage of and editorialize about candidates "would be clearly unconstitutional." Well, she said, "It is equally unconstitutional to effectively chill and eliminate citizen group advocacy. It is scandalous that Congress would muzzle issue groups in such a fashion."

Another way to rein in special interests could be to make more, rather than less, money available. "For many candidates, there is not enough money," says Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia law school and executive director of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York's Commission on Campaign Finance. Candidates are forced to spend much of their time fund raising. To level the field a bit and perhaps counteract some of the power of the special interests, the bar association recommends some public funding. But, Briffault admits, "You are not going to get rid of private money."


Many New York reformers see the city's tough new campaign finance law, as a step toward controlling the power of the special interests. Passed in 1998, it sets limits on contributions and takes a swipe at special interest money by banning corporate contributions, as well as donations from some political action committees. If a candidate participates in the Campaign Finance Program, the city will match any contribution of up to $250 from a New York resident with four times as much in public money, for a maximum of $1,000 per donation. "It's terrific," says Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause/New York. "You're getting smaller contributions from more people and more people in the city," which, she continues, is "what you want to see."


A good part of this year's campaign rhetoric has whirled around the issue of special interests. John McCains drive for the Republican presidential nomination was largely centered around his support for campaign finance and attacks on special interests. Lazio sought to boost his candidacy by going after soft money. Now, he and Clinton frequently bash each other over who is more beholding to what interest.

Americans seem to want change. According to recent Gallup polls, about 70 percent of those asked would support a complete overhaul of (or at least major changes in) the campaign finance system. But the public is cynical about what effect this change might have. Almost two thirds believe that, no matter what happens, special interests will find a way to maintain their power.


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