Ethics, politics by the numbers
In side-by-side newspaper stories last week:
-- former Gov. Buddy Roemer insisted that his $100 limit on individual contributions to his presidential committee is not unrealistic.
-- Gov. Bobby Jindal insisted that $250,000 contributions to his wife’s education foundation from big companies having business before state government are not unethical.
Whether either or both are right will be up to the voters in their next elections, but the first blush of consensus seems to be that Roemer’s limit on contributions won’t help his campaign very much while the Jindal foundation’s lack thereof will do little to hurt his.
Jindal bristled at The New York Times drawing a connection between his signing into law a statewide cable franchise bill that AT&T lobbied hard for and the firm’s $250,000 contribution to Supriya Jindal’s cause. He denied intervening on behalf of any of the companies that gave between $10,000 and $250,000 to the Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, which brings advanced whiteboard technology to elementary classrooms, mostly in low-income communities.
The story does stretch for a long-distance connection. The governor signed the Consumer Choice Television bill in June 2008 (it would have become law without his signature and he stayed neutral in the lobbying battle between cable operators and local governments), but AT&T did not make its contribution until November 2010, according to the governor’s office. The donors and amounts are listed on the foundation’s web site, beyond what the law required.
Yet to the degree that appearances matter in ethics, it looks bad that the governor’s chief political fundraiser doubles as the charity’s treasurer and that Jindal is pictured next to his wife on the web site’s corporate solicitation page. How did that look to corporate executives when they contemplated how large a check to write?
The Jindals can correct the perception problems without admitting fault. And good can come of this, for the children. The perceived attack from the Eastern press could spur Mrs. Jindal’s legion of fans to express solidarity by writing checks for whiteboards, restraining themselves to lower five figures. Gov. Jindal could manage to not spend some of his $9.2 million campaign warchest--with more coming and no opponent in sight--to benefit the foundation upon his re-election.
As for Roemer, it doesn’t take a whiteboard to figure the challenge posed by the $100 contribution limit to his national campaign. That didn’t work very well for Jerry Brown’s short-lived 1976 presidential quest, back when $100 bought something.
Roemer revels in the dismissive attitudes of doubters, saying, “They say, ‘Roemer can’t win. He won’t take the big money.’ That’s why I will win.”
The great orator asks rhetorically in a profile in Politico, “Can I get four million people to give me $100? That’s $400 million.” Coincidentally, that’s almost as much as Barack Obama raised ($453 million) through his nomination in 2008, but he got it from 403,000 individual donors. Should 400,000 people each give Roemer $100, it comes to--class?--$40 million. That would have placed him fourth in money raised by Republican contenders in 2008, behind Mitt Romney ($53 million) and ahead of Ron Paul ($34 million).
Republican nominee John McCain raised $206 million from 170,000 contributors through the convention. At Roemer’s limit, that number of givers would total $17 million in contributions, less than Fred Thompson’s $23 million in 2008.
It looks pretty hopeless from that side of the ledger, but Roemer obviously calculates that he can run far by running cheap. Last week, he said he had seeded his campaign with $50,000 in personal funds and had spent less than $4,000, as his volunteer campaign manager, Skardon Baker, observed the press conference held in Roemer’s bank board room.
Besides airplane tickets to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and a clerk to deposit checks, what does he need to spend money on for the next nine months? He will bank less on TV commercials than on free media from his outspokenness, such as going to Iowa this week to call for an end to tax subsidies for corn production . . . and oil production.
Improbable though it may be, it’s not implausible that, with all the dead wood on the GOP side, his shoestring campaign could set a prairie fire in the heartland. If so, the second Roemer Revolution will be as much mathematical as political.
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