This article originally provided by The Journal

November 5, 2006

Is the West Virginia Legislature for sale?

By RAY JOHNSTON / Community View

When the Constitution was written in 1787, our founding fathers established history’s most important democracy, but they were uneasy about what they were creating.

First, they didn’t intend to create a democracy. They meant to create a republic — a government in which the voters got to pick only their representatives in Congress. State legislatures originally elected U.S. senators and the electoral college chose the president and vice president.

Second, our founding fathers did not let very many people vote. Half the citizens were immediately disfranchised when voting was restricted to males only. Many permanent, resident aliens were disfranchised by not being citizens. Individual states further restricted the vote by setting property ownership requirements and denying the vote to slaves.

One by one these disqualifications were struck down. All voters can now vote for U.S. senators. History has demonstrated that women, ex-slaves and non-property owners can and do vote responsibly.

Alexis De Tocqueville, an observant French nobleman, toured America in the 1830s. Afterwards, he wrote a classic entitled “Democracy in America.” He concluded that our democracy could not survive because the masses would certainly use their votes to transfer the wealth of the few to the pockets or benefit of the many. De Tocqueville’s concern that the poor would vote wealth away from the rich should also be thrown into history’s waste bin.

The principal threat to our democracy nowadays is that the rich, through their financial ability to influence elections and their lobbying to influence our laws, tax and spending policies, have effectively disfranchised the poor and the middle class. Today, 1 percent of Americans own more than a third of all America’s wealth. The next richest 9 percent own a second third of America’s wealth. The bottom 90 percent of Americans own less than a third of America’s wealth.

What’s more, the centralization of wealth and power in America is still increasing. Recent tax cuts went mostly to the rich. If Congress removes the estate tax entirely instead of increasing the exemption to permit family businesses and farms to be passed from generation to generation, say from the current $1 million exemption to $5 million, $10 million or $15 million, the concentration of wealth and power in the very few and in our large corporations will increase even faster.

West Virginia is experiencing the corrosive impact of money in its public affairs as no state has for perhaps a century. While many wealthy Americans spend their own money to win individual elections, including our own Sen. Jay Rockefeller, corporations are forbidden to make political contributions. The New York Times recently wrote that Massey Energy, which had far more toxic waste spills than any other West Virginia company between 2000 and 2005, gets around the prohibition on corporate contributions by paying Chairman Don Blankenship $34 million — roughly four times the industry standard. Then out of his “personal money,” he “has promised to spend ‘whatever it takes’ to help win a (GOP) majority in the State Legislature ... .”

The Times article noted that Blankenship has already spent at least $700,000 in his current legislative efforts. He contributed another $100,000 to purchase a Charleston headquarters for the West Virginia Republican Party, $3.5 million to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia Supreme Court and $650,000 to block the refinancing of West Virginia’s under-financed employee pension plan.

No one contends that Mr. Blankenship should not make the modest political contributions, up to $1,000 per election, the law permits all of us to make. But when he spends several times more than are contributed by all other contributors in typical legislative races, West Virginians of all political persuasions should be concerned about the future independence of our Legislature.

To their credit, two GOP legislative candidates refused to accept Blankenship’s support. Most, including several Eastern Panhandle candidates, have accepted his direct financial support. All of the challengers to our incumbent local delegates are benefiting from Blankenship’s “independent” attack ads against incumbent legislators. Some are very expensive TV ads, which are rarely seen in state legislative contests.

Now, as in 1787, it is more important to protect the republic than to elect any political party or candidate.

Those who agree can help ensure the future of our republic by rejecting the undue influence of money in politics, especially money used to fund attack ads. Political campaigns are meant to give the public a chance to learn about the competence, character and policies of those who seek to represent us. When office seekers or their “independent” supporters spend large sums of special interest money to attack their opponents, they hasten the end of the republic,which Abraham Lincoln called “the last, best hope of mankind.”

— Ray Johnston can be reached at Rayatzwds@AOL.Com

* The views of columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Journal.

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