Yesterday, while participating in a campaign forum on Texas Public Radio’s The Source, I charged that my two opponents were being compromised by campaign contributions from special interests. The moderator David Martin Davies followed up by asking me to define what I meant by special interests.
My opponent Ron Nirenberg typically tries to stave off my charge by claiming that his “special interests” are his neighbors, even though many of his contributions come from 78209 (Alamo Heights), 78205 (downtown business), and lobbying law firms, so I gave Davies a definition to block Nirenberg’s evasive tactic – i.e., I said that special interests are people and businesses outside of District 8. To which Nirenberg responded by saying that, based on my definition, his dad would be a special interest because he lives in Austin. And Moderator Davies piled on by concluding the forum by saying to Ron, “You’re not just representing the District; you are a powerful voice for the city.”
Immediately after we went off the air, I jokingly chided Davies for rebuffing my argument without giving me a chance to respond. Davies acted a little surprised, as if he had said something that incontrovertible.
Truth be told, though, I was probably lucky that Davies had run out of show-time because this is an issue that I had not previously thought through completely, and therefore it would have been dangerous to go through the mental gymnastics for the first time on live radio. My blog is a much safer place to explore this issue.
As I indicated in my blog yesterday, I have never been receptive to the argument that small gifts will not affect a person of normal integrity. Small gifts affect me and most of the people I have known in my life. I still remember receiving (and appreciating) the bottles of booze I received as a State Farm adjuster at Christmas time from Minot body shops. Of course, I don’t hang around with fat cats and moneyed people. Reed Williams lives out at the Dominion and perhaps it is no big thing for him to receive some Spurs tickets or a free round of golf, but most normal people don’t live in that sort of environment.
This topic was discussed in some detail at this morning’s Chamber of Commerce forum, and afterwards a former Councilperson came up to me and expressed broad agreement with my positions except for the issue of campaign contributions. His tack was almost the same as Reed’s – i.e., $1,000 won’t buy or even influence him.
I recognize that I am cheaper than the average Joe, but I think most voters would tell aspiring politicians that, even though you may not feel you can be bought for a couple of Spurs tickets, as long as you are representing us, we will insist that you indulge us by restraining your lax gifting habits until you no longer work for us.
Getting back to David Martin Davies original question – what is a special interest? – I suggest that there is a spectrum of answers. The broadest definition would be anyone who gives you money in return for access or influence. If the person or business is outside your district, the contribution is more suspect. And the most suspicious of all is money that comes from a PAC or lobbyist, whose raison d’être is access and influence.