Saturday, June 14, 2008

Pay to Play, Part 1 - the corruption tax

We all read the headlines with great anticipation when US Attorney Chris Christie indicts yet another public official for breaking the law. Yet the cost to the public for fraud and other illegal activities in actual dollars is very small compared to the total cost of government. A much more significant cost to the taxpayers comes from legal and "necessary" campaign contributions from the companies and individuals that do business with state, county and local government. This is true all over New Jersey.
Common Cause estimates the cost to New Jersey taxpayers to be close to $1 billion a year. One needs to go no further than Plainfield to illustrate the costs of pay to play.

But first, for the uninitiated, a little q & a:

1. Is pay to play "necessary"? - from the perspective of vendors, it is a necessary evil. Many government contracts do not require competitive bids and donations to the party in power can lead to lucrative business deals. A prominent New Jersey business cut back on pay to play donations a few years ago and lost significant business. They had to get back in this game to keep their business afloat (I did not have permission to use their name).

2. I thought that there are limits to campaign donations that level the playing field in the struggle for influence? - there are loopholes that allow companies to donate through each business partner, spouses and other family members. Donations can also be maximized by giving money to many campaign committees that are affiliated. Last but not least, there are a few campaign committees that have no limits for donations - these are the state Democratic and Republican Committees and the committees for the legislative leaders of each party.

3. What is wheeling? - that is how money, coming through the loopholes mentioned above can be funnelled from all over the state into select election campaigns. Big money was wheeled into Plainfield from south jersey Democrats to defeat Mayor Al McWilliams 3 years ago. I heard estimates of $100,000 to $200,000 but its hard to confirm facts given the convoluted paths this money follows.

4. What does this money get spent on in election campaigns? Mailings, robo-calls, lawn signs, television commercials, political polling, campaign consultants and much more.

Ok - so how does pay to play work in Plainfield?

In a mostly one party town, the primary, especially a contested primary, is where the action is. The Plainfield 2008 primary was a battle between the Regular Democrats, with pay to play money, and the challengers who got mostly local donations from residents. Why did the Regular Dems get all the pay to play money? Very simple. The Mayor and Plainfield Democratic City Committee chairman are Regular Democrats. The Mayor signs city contracts. If you want to get elected in Plainfield, it really helps to have support from the City Committee chair. That person decides your fate in the primary election: he or she decides who gets the party line on the ballot, a huge advantage in Plainfield.

The vendors know this and of course they want to back the winners. So when they have to choose between attending the Jerry Green fundraiser for the Regular Democratic candidates or the challengers event, its a no brainer. So if you were wondering why the incumbents could run numerous tv commercials and the challengers could not, wonder no more. In my 6 City Council campaigns, I've been on both sides of this situation. Feast or famine. But I was very careful not to take money from the party for anything more than lawn signs. Didn't want to owe too much to people whose agenda was not clear to me.

This kind of political fundraising is part of the American landscape. Why should we care? Because cost are high and guess who pays?

We taxpayers do in several ways. First, the vendors must build their donations into the cost of doing business with government. That road project includes the cost of engineering, a profession well known to make big pay to play donations regularly. Attorneys and auditors get no bid contracts so they have to play this game, like it or not.

The second way taxpayers/citizens are affected has to do reduced value for the services we pay for. If a business can get the contract through donations rather than offering the best price and value, there is less incentive for high performance to get and keep Plainfield's business.

To sum up, pay to play results in paying more and getting less. This is the corruption tax and it is perfectly legal.

In my next blog I will provide some details on local pay to play. If you like internet research, google NJ ELEC for a search engine that will locate the money and you can start to understand how it flows. Warning - you may get the feeling you are only scratching the surface by doing this.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Plainfield Democratic Party: Can we kiss and make up?

This is the question of the day. It will take leadership to bring us all together. We elected officials will have to take the credit or blame for how it turns out. I want to highlight one recent small step that points the way.

On election night, after the results were totaled and the McWilliams-Mapp celebration was in full swing, Don Davis, City Councilman, 3rd ward and candidate in the election, came over and personally congratulated the winners. I know Don and his family. They have deep roots in the community. There is a lot family pride here and it wasn't easy for him to come over and face the group that beat him in a heated campaign, especially after the painful hits he took near the end of the campaign.

It was a classy thing to do. We all need to follow his example. I wish Don the best in everything and lets not forget he continues to serve Plainfield until his term ends December 31. After that, I know he will stay involved as will the rest of his family.

We Democrats will have to take baby steps to rebuild our team. At McWilliams-Mapp headquarters, in the middle of the victory celebration, Don Davis said this to me: "Whats done is done. Lets move on. Its all about Plainfield"

Plainfield's Primary Election: What does it mean?

Congratulations to the Democratic Party winners who will be on the ballot for City Council in November: challengers Annie McWilliams for Council at large and Adrian Mapp for 3rd Ward. Lets not forget Bill Reid, who ran uncontested in the 1st ward. And there still is a Republican Party in town, to be represented by Deborah Dowe for the Council at large seat in November.

Some of my fellow Democrats are now cringing. I made the mistake of mentioning the opponents name, a no no in campaign tactics. I will make up for it by campaigning hard for Annie McWilliams who will be running against ......?????. Is that better?

It's hard to draw conclusions from election results in Plainfield because we are such a diverse town. And I don't just mean diversity along the black-white-hispanic-asian dimension. We are diverse socio-economically, culturally and politically.

By the way, can you name the Plainfield ward that is the most diverse along the racial, ethnic and family income dimensions? Hint - it is the same ward for all three dimensions. The answer will be in my next blog.

Here is my take on the election results:

1. A good door to door campaign trumped pay to play money this time around. I have yet to see the final spending reports but my guess is that the incumbents outspent the challengers by a 3 - 1 or 4 - 1 margin. Good news for good government!

2. Direct voter contact led our walkers to believe that people are impatient with local government. Mayor Robinson Briggs, who was campaigning actively for the incumbents, apparently did not deliver many votes. Significant pluralities for McWilliams and Mapp bear this out. They were not easy to find on the ballot but people were looking for their names. McWilliams' 1800 to 1000 vote victory over Gibson would have been much greater if we factored in ballot position.

3. Lack of action on roads was a concern over and over again. Taxes also. The incumbents campaigned on "the lowest tax increase in the county". The voters didn't care or didn't believe it.

4. The McWilliams name is still important. Not to take anything away from Annie. She ran a very good campaign as her own person.

5. The New Democrat label, thought by some to have suffered irreparable damage in the last few years, did not harm McWilliams and Mapp. On the other hand, it is not clear if it helped them either. The challengers did not use it much and the incumbents actually did use it, thinking it would work against McWilliams and Mapp.

6. Adrian Mapp's vote total might have been even higher if not for Olive Lynch's candidacy. She made a surprisingly strong showing.

One of the best comments I heard on election day was from a local resident who works for the state legislature in Trenton. He said the total Plainfield vote is more important than who wins local elections. Resource allocation decisions at the county, state and even national levels are influenced by the size of the voting public. How are we doing so far this year? Barack Obama certainly benefited from a very good Plainfield turnout in February. In the June primary, a slow year for local elections, Plainfields turnout was better than expected. McWilliams and Mapp get much of the credit for that. Our man in Trenton predicted a Plainfield vote total of 1600 based on his analysis of previous years voting totals. It was close to 3000. The challenge for all Plainfield Democrats is how to come together to maximize our potential influence.