Hugh Reynolds: Campaign cash

Hugh Reynolds.

Hugh Reynolds.

I’ve often wondered about the going purchase rate for politicians. There’s an unprovable two-to-one rule of thumb, for instance, on the reporting of campaign donations as it relates to actual campaign donations.

The late Kingston mayor T.R. Gallo once shared a story with me over drinks after golf on this particular style of dancing in the dark. A local businessman came up to him, he said, and expressed admiration on how the young new mayor was revitalizing the city after many years of malaise. He said he’d like to contribute to Gallo’s campaign but didn’t want to see his name on any of those campaign spending reports in the paper.

“You ever hear of cash?” Gallo said he told him.


In regard to big-time payoffs by contributors, I’m thinking the ratio could be more like a thousand to one, maybe a lot more.

Sources come from unlikely places. Browsing through the New York Post for the usual meaningless trivia and clever headlines, I didn’t expect someone who heads a crime-prevention research think tank to have much to say about campaign finance, but the name Bernie Sanders and the word “lunacy” caught my eye.

John R. Lott Jr. — not to be confused with the Biblical figure with the salty wife — is president of an outfit called the Crime Prevention Research Center. According to his website, Lott, an economist, mostly deals with gun-control issues. He’s pro-gun, but says he doesn’t take money from the National Rifle Association or other such groups. Lott is also a regular commentator on Fox News, which in some quarters immediately renders him an ally or an alien or, like people who read the Post, dopes.

Sanders’ philosophy being well-documented, Lott makes some interesting observations on how campaign spending relates to government spending, demonstrating how one apparently drives the other.

Citing the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Lott details how campaign spending soared from $1.6 billion in 1998 to $3.8 billion for the 2014 midterm elections after Citizens United opened the floodgates. During the same period, federal spending increased from $1.65 trillion to $3.9 trillion. Inflation was about 15 percent during that period. To paraphrase the late senator Everett Dirksen, a trillion here and a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re spending real money.

Lott calls “lunacy” Sanders’ notion of limiting campaign spending while calling for higher spending — about $18 trillion over the next 10 years, according to reliable sources. As indicated by CRP research, the two rise in tandem.

Lott also observes that the billions spent in 2014 campaign contributions represented less than a tenth of 1 percent of federal spending that year, or one dollar in contributions for every $1,000 in spending.

That’s simplistic, of course. Only a fraction of spending in any governmental budget is discretionary. But it does offer food for thought. Is the constant thousand-to-one formula valid? Business types or lobbyists who donate heavily to campaigns, be it Koch, Soros or Trump, in most cases don’t do so out of civic duty. And the rewards can be quite handsome.

If Sanders as president were to increase federal spending on the order of 40 percent a year, campaign contributions to get at that pot of gold can only follow. Or so says Mrs. Lott’s husband.

Reading along

Viewers sometimes wonder how TV talking heads can be so insightful, profound and predictive two minutes after the president signs off on a two-hour state-of-the-union address. The answer is of course, they get advance copies and staff briefings, usually no later than the afternoon of the speech. That’s how they do it in the big time.

Around here, it’s a mixed bag. Rarely do media get to read along with the presenter, much less get an advance copy. I find it annoying to have to take copious notes and then have almost the exact same thing handed out by aides after the applause dies down.

There are exceptions. Earlier this month, Ulster County legislative leaders delivered their respective state-of-the-county addresses at session. Copies were given to media and legislators just prior to the speeches. For all the secrecy surrounding these occasions, it is rare for a speaker to depart from his or her text. Reading along, media look more for emphasis on a word, indicating perhaps priority, or the occasional change in adjectives, or deletions in text.

Last month, Democratic Minority Leader Hector Rodriguez made a change in his prepared remarks that might have been significant (literally). The change reportedly got him in hot water with the county executive.

The tale, told for the first time here, goes like this:

Rodriguez, a five-term New Paltz (village) Democrat, in his first such speech (he’d run unsuccessfully for leadership positions several times before), covered a number of issues in a 20-minute address, including paid family leave, the environment, energy, healthcare, economic development and finance.

In the latter category, his speech read: “I would be remise [he meant remiss] to not mention the issue of sales tax, probably the most polarizing issue facing this legislature in 2016. While our caucus has not taken a position … I will say with some confidence that the Democratic caucus [which he just said had not taken a position] will not support any significant change in the agreement for 2016 or 2017.”

Reading along a few sentences ahead, I underlined the word “significant.” My first thought was “wiggle room,” but my second was that the legislature might be taking a leadership position on what was by then much more than just a polarizing issue.

At the end of Rodriguez’s speech, I turned to my colleague Pat Doxsey from the Freeman for some bounce-back, as media (and old friends) often do.

“No significant change,” I said. “That’s pretty important.”

”That’s not what he said. That’s what he wrote,” she said. “He said, ‘No change.’ Big difference.”

Could the aging dean of the lower Hudson Valley press have missed something significant? We went to the horse’s mouth. Rodriguez looked at my copy of his speech, where I had underlined the word “significant,” nodded, crossed it out, and wrote “not” in its place. Like Doxsey said, “Big difference.”

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