2006-09-15 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Why I Run
By Stu Mirsky Candidate For Assembly 23 AD

By Stu Mirsky
Candidate For Assembly 23 AD

STUMIRSKYSTUMIRSKY According to a recently issued report from the Institute on Money in Politics, by Mark Dixon (issued July 20, 2006), "an analysis of all state races" between 2001 and 2004 showed that roughly 85% of the winners were the candidates who had "raised the most money..."( http:// www.fol lowthemoney.org/press/ Reports/ 200607201.pdf ) Incumbency, adds Dixon, was a second critical factor. While rating high as a factor in state races in 2002, its significance actually increased in 2004. "Less than 7 percent of state level candidates are able to win a state legislative seat without having either a fund-raising advantage or already holding office," Dixon notes.

So, when people ask me why I decided to run for Assembly this year, against long time incumbent Audrey Pheffer, I just point to statistics like these. Somebody's got to break this lock that incumbency and money seem to have on our political institutions I tell them.

But why subject myself to the indignities of political campaigning or endure the onerous filing requirements, the fight for signatures to get on the ballot, and the struggle for support from competing political factions? Why give up privacy and peace of mind to run for a state office for which there are no matching funds and, finally, little chance of winning? Incumbents nearly always win, don't they? And money talks.

According to the website www.Fol lowthemoney.org , my opponent raised in excess of $86,000 for her last race in 2004, even though she ran unopposed that year! And here I am struggling on a shoestring.

This is especially troubling because she didn't actually have to spend any of her funds in her last race since she didn't have to do any campaigning. That means she probably still has the bulk of those dollars in her war chest today, ready for use this year against anyone who might challenge her which, as it happens, means me! And that takes no account of the funds she'll be able to raise this year by going back to the fundraising well.

Who contributed to her campaign in the past? According to Followthe mon ey.org, 65.9% of her contributors were from the business sector, including law firms and lobbyists, real estate, health services, retail sales and the insurance industry. Another 34.1% of her contributions came from the labor side of the ledger (public sector and trade unions). Now I'm certainly not against fundraising and private contributions but it really does rankle to think that our democratic system has reached this point, where money seems to talk.

How does the average citizen who wants to have an impact, who wants to make a change, go up against this kind of stacked deck? I've been told that you can't even think about throwing your hat into the political arena these days if you're not prepared to spend at least $100,000. And that means you also have to be prepared to raise it.

But the bigger question is what's entailed when you raise this kind of money? Pheffer currently chairs the Assembly's Consumer Affairs Committee. Do the contributions she receives from many business enterprises, and the organizations that represent them, give them greater access to her than you and I, her ordinary, non-contributing constituents have? I don't know, but I worry that that's what I'll be facing if I have to raise substantial funds to compete with her in the upcoming Assembly race. On the other hand, the huge political bankroll Pheffer is apparently sitting on looks daunting to an ad hoc competitor like me.

I decided to run this year because no one else was willing to do it and because I firmly believed that democracy without competitive races is a travesty. But more, when I decided to run, I told my friends and supporters I'd do it seriously. I wouldn't make a half hearted effort. I'd let people know that this year, at last, there really is an alternative in the voting booth. This year we'll have real democracy so people can make a choice when they pull the voting levers.

But the money factor still looks daunting. How do you beat an incumbent who, like one of those medieval dragons of old, is sitting on a huge cash hoard, the fruit of years of fundraising without any consequent need to spend? How do you get the message out if you don't raise some cash of your own? And if you do, how do you keep yourself free from the taint of undue influence? This year I guess I'll find out.

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