This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

May 25, 2008

Nick Nyhart and Gary Zuckett

Pols will go where money is

Visiting coalfields and college campuses, Democratic presidential candidates and their surrogates worked hard to gain voter support before West Virginia's May 13 primary. The sad reality, though, is that now the primary is over, the focus will be all on the money, and that money is in Charleston.

People living in ZIP code 25314, in the South Hills section of Charleston, have so far given nearly $50,000 to the presidential candidates this cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. According to the 2000 U.S. census, only 6.5 percent of residents in South Hills, home to the Berry Hills Country Club, live below the poverty line. In fact, 28 percent of households in the area have annual incomes of more than $100,000.

Travel about 50 miles southeast, though, and you'll see a different story. In Oak Hill, a coal mining town, four residents have given just over $4,000 in donations over $200 to presidential candidates this cycle. With over 20 percent of residents in the area living below the poverty line, this shouldn't be surprising.

When Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and the Democratic nominee head to West Virginia to campaign for the general election, there's no doubt they'll head to Charleston, where wealthy donors are able to write maxed-out checks for these candidates. Money talks in politics. Oak Hill, where there are far fewer wealthy households, is unlikely to receive any attention from the candidates even though these are the residents that need the access to and help from the next president the most.

But who can blame the candidates? In today's political system, our elections look more like a race to see who can get the most campaign cash. Those with the biggest campaign war chests are hailed by the media as front-runners, while those unable to raise $100 million or more are left out in the cold.

There is a way to end this pay-to-play system. Called Fair Elections, it's an alternative that would put coal miners in Oak Hill on the same playing field as well to do lawyers and lobbyists in Charleston. Fair Elections would make elections in this country about voters and not big campaign donors.

In Congress, there are two bills that would dramatically change our elections. The proposed bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act would give candidates running for Congress the option to campaign free from having to raise funds from the very people who plan on lobbying them post-Election Day. Similarly, the recently introduced Presidential Funding Act would modernize the outdated partial presidential public financing system, strengthening the voice of small donors within the process.

The bills are modeled on successful systems in Arizona, Connecticut, Maine, four other states and two cities. To qualify for a public grant, a candidate must collect a set amount of small contributions, forgo all private donations, and adhere to strict spending limits. If they face a privately financed opponent, "Fair Fight" funds are available to keep the race on a level playing field.

To date, nine of 11 statewide officeholders in Arizona and 84 percent of state lawmakers in Maine won using Fair Elections systems. Candidates from all walks of life without access to wealth or political insiders are able to run competitive campaigns for office. Big campaign contributors are unable to curry influence through campaign donations and elected officials are able to focus on the issues of all constituents and not just big campaign donors.

West Virginia Citizen Action, along with the Council of Churches, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, labor unions and others are working on similar legislation for West Virginia's state Senate and House races. The Legislature will also soon begin studying possible options for judicial public financing, similar to the system already in place in North Carolina.

As we sit back and watch the most expensive campaign season in history take place, we should remember that it doesn't have to be this way. There are successful, commonsense models that, if passed, will end pay-to-play politics. We need to let our elected officials know that by passing the proposed bills for public financing of elections, candidates will focus on voters instead of big-money political donors.

If not, the voices of those in Oak Hill and in small, working-class towns across the country may be left out of the process.

Nyhart is the president and CEO of Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to campaign reform. Zuckett is the executive director of West Virginia Citizen Action.


Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246