Candidates cover common ground

Published 9:51 pm Sunday, October 10, 2010

Staff Writer

Senate candidates Hood Richardson and Marc Basnight found some common ground on questions of campaign finance, though they differed somewhat on the finer points of ethics reform and the ways campaigns should be funded in North Carolina.
During an informal debate Thursday, Richardson, a Washington Republican, proposed enacting a $100 state income-tax credit for people who make contributions to political campaigns.
At present, state law limits individuals to $4,000 in direct contributions to candidates in a given campaign cycle.
“You might be able to give to a hundred people if you wanted to, but you would be limited to $100 for each of those candidates,” Richardson said of his proposal. “That would get the public more involved in these races. Right now, there’s no reason for the average person to want to necessarily contribute to a politician.”
On this point, Richardson and Basnight, an incumbent Democrat from Manteo, diverged, with Basnight referring to former vice-presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.
“I don’t know if I agree there,” Basnight remarked in rebuttal. “I saw John Edwards come in and buy an election with his personal wealth. I did not like that that occurred.”
Basnight added, “You place at a disadvantage a simple person trying to serve with no personal resources. So you have to weigh that against the financing of campaigns.”
Basnight acknowledged it would be possible, if inadvisable, to implement a tax credit of the kind Richardson described.
“You would have to cap that if you have nonpayers,” he said. “But my argument against that would simply be that the wealthy people, no criticism of their right to … run, but they can buy the election with enormous quantities of money.”
In his turn, Richardson said he would call for monthly reporting of campaign-finance records, as opposed to quarterly reporting under the current system.
“Then the public will know the source of the funds, where the money’s coming from, and it’s that kind of policy that lets the public decide,” he said.
Responding to an ethics-related question that prompted these exchanges, Basnight referenced former House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat who went to prison for taking money from chiropractors while advocating on their behalf in the N.C. General Assembly.
“That was previous to any ethics change or law that we have today,” Basnight said, regarding the Black scandal. “If a man or a woman is intent on taking something from the public to advance any cause and it not be within the framework of the law, it is absolutely wrong.”
Basnight suggested it’s a good idea to loosen rules on the amount of money a person can give to a candidate, adding he visited Virginia recently, where “campaign contributions … are unlimited.”
“No government intrusion or law or regulation,” he said. “You can give any amount you want. You would think I would not like that, but I am believing now we need a change in North Carolina. As to what? So as you do not trap or take somebody, who isn’t intent on doing what is wrong, and make a criminal out of him. What Jim Black did was wrong. He took cash.”
Basnight mentioned an effort mounted by Civitas Action, a conservative group that’s targeting him and House Speaker Joe Hackney with mailers to voters, according to The Associated Press.
Civitas Action has received funding from Variety Stores, which is owned by Republican activist Art Pope’s family, AP pointed out.
“I do not have condemnation because of that. That is (Pope’s) right. It is the law,” Basnight commented.
He said “a purposeful evasion of the law … would be, clarified if, in Virginia, the same (law) applied across the country. Let a free man do as he or she wants with their resources, be it a corporation, your company or mine.”
Basnight also nodded, indirectly, to the fact that the campaigns of former Gov. Mike Easley and current Gov. Beverly Perdue, both Democrats, have been fined for unreported or misreported campaign flights.
“In Virginia, they’ve not had the conflicts we’ve had,” he said. “If you want to get on a plane, get on the plane and go. You can get anybody you want to fly you anywhere. By the way, I don’t fly very often.”
That last comment drew laughter from Basnight and Richardson, one of a number of lighthearted moments between the two.
“The more law, the more question, the more lawyers you have. That is not healthy,” Basnight continued. “We know what is wrong; we know what is right. Cash is wrong. We all know that. Hood knows that. He is an honorable man.”
Richardson suggested the law, not firmer ethics standards for lawmakers, is the answer.
“It’s not law, it’s ethics. It’s different from law,” he said. “It’s a set of rules that you’re supposed to follow and obey. That same set of ethics that the Republicans have taken now, and they’re using to beat the Democrats with. I think that it’s justifiable punishment for passing a bad law to begin with. I’d rather have law than ethics any day.”
He agreed with Basnight’s observation that campaign contributions should be unlimited in this state.
“I do think you need disclosure,” Richardson added. “I do agree with the senator. Let a free man do what he wants to, but in the public interest you need disclosure.”
“Record it,” Basnight interjected.
“That’s right,” Richardson said. “The public needs to know when interests outside of North Carolina, that are not savory to North Carolina, are coming in. They also need to know the people in the state that are giving money back and forth on these things. Disclosure is the secret, not this ethical mess.”
Asked if legislating unlimited campaign contributions would treat underfunded candidates, and thereby the public, cavalierly, both candidates offered what seemed to be “yes-and-no” responses.
“Both sides do it equally well,” Basnight said. “The advantage would be to the Republican candidates this time. Two years ago, this advantage was to the Democrats. That swing and sway has a history.”
Basnight pointed to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision which struck down a ban on corporate campaign contributions as unconstitutional, partly on the grounds that, in the court majority’s view, corporations are individuals.
“Today we see a different ingredient than what we’ve ever seen,” Basnight said. “But it is hard to argue against the right of a company, corporation, individual to speak. I would like to see the name of the people involved.”
To Richardson, the trouble with campaign finance is more systemic than political.
“We need to have law in these areas,” he said. “I think there is an appearance of a lot of corruption in Raleigh, but to say the party is corrupt, the Democrat Party, that is wrong. To say that some individuals have done some bad things is correct.”
For a final article on the debate, see Tuesday’s edition.