It’s all on the lists

Published 11:05 am Thursday, July 17, 2008

By Staff
Internal polls and worries about the November election hang over many of the important debates left in the General Assembly as lawmakers begin what may be the last week of the legislative session.
Bills to address the role of race in the capital-punishment system, protect children from bullying at school and make it more difficult for people with a serious mental illness to buy a gun are among the contentious pieces of legislation before House and Senate members this week.
The issues have galvanized groups that often intimidate legislators into worrying about retribution at the polls, the Religious Right, pro-gun groups and the state’s district attorneys.
The groups may not be as powerful in influencing the outcome of elections as they claim, but each time they prevail in a legislative debate, the perception of their power grows and then becomes more of a reality as the circle of political fear tightens in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the groups’ influence in state policy becomes more entrenched.
And there’s an even more powerful predictor of who will really run state government in the next four or eight years and who it will be run for, information that is more publicly available than ever but less analyzed by the media than in past years.
In the past few day, state and federal candidates, political parties and political action committees have filed their required reports with elections officials in Raleigh and Washington.
With some exceptions, most of the coverage about the reports has focused on who is winning the money chase, who has raised the most in the last quarter and who has the most cash in the bank to pay for commercials this summer.
That’s useful information for the horse race. Money still equals credibility in politics, and political fundraising has much in common with getting a loan from a bank. The more money you have, the more money you can get.
Not too many years ago before all the campaign reports were available online, reporters used to flock to the Board of Elections and painstakingly pore through the paper filings, with analyses appearing in the next day’s paper or on that night’s television news.
The News &Observer’s Under the Dome blog has provided some details about the reports from the leading candidates for governor and U.S. Senate, but not much has appeared in the papers on or television yet. That’s not the fault of political reporters. Most also cover the General Assembly as the staffing levels of traditional outlets continues to shrink.
And the news is not just about the candidates. Information is available about the state’s most powerful political action committees. Citizen for Higher Education, the PAC of wealthy supporters of UNC-Chapel Hill, has $229,000 in the bank and has already given $223,000 to legislative candidates.
That might help explain why the absurd break for athletic boosters clubs snuck into the budget a few years ago remains on the books, costing taxpayers $8 million a year. Or why UNC always seems to do better than other state agencies in the final budget approved by the House and Senate.
One of the contributors to the UNC-CH PAC is Fred Mills, a member of the UNC Board of Governors, which is not very reassuring about his impartiality on the Board.
The PAC of the Realtors Association has almost $1 million in the bank ready to give to campaigns. It has already given $135,000 to candidates this year. The Realtors’ brothers in protecting their profits, the Homebuilders Association, has $390,000 in the bank and has already passed on more than $150,000 in campaign contributions.
There are hundreds of important details in the campaign reports of the PACs and the candidates that voters should know about and understand the context of, and they are all versions of the same story.
The reports explain who will have influence in the next General Assembly and the next administration in Raleigh and the next Congress in Washington.
Recent news about the presidential campaigns makes the point even more directly. The New York Times recently reported that Sen. Barack Obama had not been as forthcoming as promised about the name of the bundlers to his campaign, the people who have raised from $50,000 to $250,000.
The Obama campaign has since made the names more available, and there is a reason to look at them and the similar big money people for the McCain campaign.
Unless things change dramatically, many of the people on the lists will be the next administration’s ambassadors and top political appointees. Forty-nine of the top fundraisers for President Bush were later appointed as ambassadors, including former North Carolina Commerce Secretary Dave Phillips and his brother Phil.
The News &Observer profiled Winston-Salem businessman Jim Culbertson on Sunday. He was recently named ambassador to the Netherlands after raising $10 million for Bush in the past eight years. Culbertson tells the N&O that he had repeatedly told the White House that he didn’t want anything for the money he raised, that instead he would recommend his friends.
That’s how the nation’s top diplomats are selected, by how much money they or their friends raised. And that’s who will have the most access to the next governor, the next senator and the next General Assembly, too, the people and the companies on the list.