Things We Read Today (29), Weekend


Campaign Finance Against the Upstart

Full disclosure: About a decade ago — back when my concentration was more on fiction and poetry than commentary and analysis — I had a period of regular correspondence with Mark Binder, who is himself a writer of fiction.  I’ve enjoyed his work, but I definitely don’t agree with his politics. Nonetheless, if there could be a better case study of incumbents’ use of campaign finance laws to hinder challengers than Binder’s upstart campaign against House Speaker Gordon Fox (D, Providence), I can’t imagine it.

Fox, recall, was a high-profile sponsor of legislation last session to tackle “electioneering” and ballot-question advocacy under the banner of preventative anti-superPAC inoculation.  Not surprisingly, during his campaign battle with Binder, Fox has been weaving rope from the campaign-finance weeds.

The latest example has to do with some relatively high-dollar spending by Fox-foe incumbent Democrat Spencer Dickinson (D, South Kingstown):

A lawyer for House Speaker Gordon D. Fox has alleged illegal “coordination” between opponent Mark Binder’s campaign and a South Kingstown lawmaker who has spent $3,820 on mailers aimed at defeating Fox in his home district in Providence.

A complaint filed with the Board of Elections on Friday by lawyer Susan Pegden focuses on the maximum $1,000 contribution allowed that Rep. Spencer Dickinson, D-South Kingstown, gave Binder, and Dickinson’s subsequent $3,820 “independent expenditure” to defeat Fox.

Limiting spending is the first wave of this sort of attack.  As an incumbent builds a war-chest of smaller-scale donations over the years, he has plenty of money to spend on himself.  When a challenger emerges, though, the money inflow is sharply limited.

The second wave is the politics of disparagement and doubt.  I don’t have any details about the origin or pervasiveness of an anti-Binder flier that Valerie T has shared via Twitter, but it’s telling that three of the five reasons given not to vote for Binder have to do with campaign finances.  Number 4 is especially germane to this post:

Mark Binder is being investigated by the R.I. Board of Elections for multiple election law violations.

As I said, I definitely don’t agree with Binder’s politics, but I’m getting to the point that I see this accusation against him as a selling point, not a detriment.

Rhode Island Needs More Debate (Not “Debates,” but “Debate”)

As was to be expected, Ted Nesi’s weekly quick-hit column is heavy with the horse-race politics, this weekend.  As I frequently disclaim, I’m much more interested in policy than politics, but my greatest impression from the piece is that Rhode Island needs more public debate… real, substantive, common-wisdom-challenging public debate.

Two of Nesi’s points appear with the air of studied analysis — and I have little doubt that many in Rhode Island will accept them as such — but I’d argue that they skirt alternate possibilities.  Here’s the first:

On Wednesday, David Cicilline will either be re-elected in a remarkable demonstration of political skill or be defeated as voters turn against a too-slick incumbent. Then what? If Cicilline wins, will Republicans ever again be able to convince anyone they can win the 1st District, considering the advantages they’d have squandered this year?

Nesi’s subsequent suggestion that the national GOP may determine that Rhode Island is a lost cause may prove to be the case, but in the sentences above, he misses a key variable in the equation of a Cicilline victory: the RI voter.  A Cicilline victory won’t necessarily be a testament to Cicilline’s skill or local Republicans’ ineptitude.  Rather, it could be evidence that the people who have remained in the state as it’s declined simply will not impose consequences for politicians’ bad behavior, provided they’re Democrats.

In that line, here’s the second sampling:

With about 90% of Rhode Island voters either independents or registered Democrats, and every federal-level Republican save Doherty on track to get less than 40% of the vote here, it seems an “R” is only worth an automatic 33% or so.  Yet the state’s dismal economic performance and the frequent failings of its leaders could give Republicans like these four a real opening in the future – and a less conservative take on social issues could help win over centrist voters, depriving Democrats of a wedge issue. Recall the way Catherine Terry Taylor nearly defeated Ralph Mollis in 2010 when she ran for secretary of state as a John Chafee Republican on a reform platform – there’s an opening there.

Nesi’s examples elide some critical cases.  On the conservative side, there’s John Loughlin, John Robitaille, and Don Carcieri.  On the “moderate” side, there’s former liberal-RIGOP standard bearer Linc Chafee’s lost race against Sheldon Whitehouse.  And there isn’t really any evidence that the current generation of “moderate” Republicans are finding success (if they’re finding it) because they’re “moderate.”

Of my examples, Robitaille might be the most important.  His gubernatorial race against “independent” Chafee had the interesting dynamic not only of the fiscally sane/socially liberal Moderate Party candidate Ken Block, but also the relatively conservative Democrat Frank Caprio.

From where I sit, I’d say the most game-changing opening is for the GOP to find some way to effect a party switch of socially conservative Democrats or to unseat them with credible socially conservative Republicans.  But then, my point here isn’t to argue that case, but to lament the woeful lack of meaningful discussion of these topics ’round here.

Against Pigeonholing

If you’re looking for an interesting local figure, Rhode Island Catholic columnist William Patenaude should be on your radar.  His columns (and his in-the-works book) focus on ecology from a Catholic perspective, but he’s got an op-ed in today’s Providence Journal that’s worth a read:

To make my point, I will say here that I will be voting for Mitt Romney. I have a number of reasons (and regrets) for this choice. My ballot will be cast primarily because of how the governor defines the beginning and ending of human life — which I assert to be the foundational issue that defines how well we handle all other issues.

Many reading my words may have just formed an opinion about me — one that will be difficult to change. My vote for Mitt Romney implies for some that I am a good man and for others that I am a misguided or dangerous one.

It will help little to say that I do not hate Barack Obama — that I believe he is a man of fine qualities, most especially his care for those he loves. For a great many, it is not possible to vote for the governor and have praise for the president. Just as for some supporters of Mitt Romney, it is not possible to vote for Barack Obama and have kind thoughts for the governor.

That, to me, is a “moderate” position, and as such, it’s got some erroneous emphases (I’d say).

I do not hate Barack Obama, either.  Among the greatest benefits that I’ve derived from the religion that Bill and I share are the constant, existential reminders that every human being is to be loved and that it is impossible for evil to overshadow any person’s intrinsic value.

Still, what makes me not-moderate on this scale is the conviction that we cannot therefore dismiss the very real damage that individual politicians can do and the very real danger that their ideologies present to our nation and our society.

The Danger of Nationalized Education

On that note, I shift to the skepticism that I share with Robert Nemeth about the Obama administration’s push for a “common core” nationalized slate of education standards.  President George W. Bush’s federal No Child Left Behind was bad enough, but at least it restricted itself mostly to nationalizing a priority of testable, traceable results.  With “ObamaCore,” as Nemeth paints it, we cross the line into this:

The plan, quietly but steadfastly promoted by the White House, is to bring local education under federal control. That is to be accomplished through enforcing a national curriculum, bypassing parents, state and local school boards, and dictating what students will and will not learn. Because federal laws explicitly prohibit the central government from directing, funding or controlling any state and local education standard, the White House uses surrogates — commissions and foundations — as well as immense financial pressure to coerce the states to go along with the change.

As history marches away from World War II, nationalization of itself becomes less of a bogeyman, but anybody who truly prioritizes independent thought should ponder this: If it is so necessary for state and federal governments to ensure quality in education, it can only be because communities and parents are not insisting on success through local control.  Some of us believe the reason to be barriers that have crept into place, and they are barriers that further centralization will only increase.

But even if you take the view that something in the culture or in the requirements of the era has changed such that parents and communities cannot be the source of accountability for practical reasons, you have to question whether there might be national interests poised to take invidious advantage of regionalizers and nationalizers’ good intentions.