Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

June 2000

Campaign Finance Reform

With the recent flap about campaign finance reform, I'm reminded of how inflation (regardless of Mr. Greenspan's efforts) has its way with everything. Truly, the issues of controlling or (better) capping political campaign spending haven't changed much.

In 1976, I was sent on a fool's mission to negotiate spending limits in the governor's race. The meeting was to be held at the then Howard Johnson restaurant on Shelburne Road, Burlington. The candidates were Richard Snelling, Stella Hackel and Bernie Sanders. Along with a prominent Burlington attorney I was representing the interests of Snelling. A very able IBMer was representing Hackel. Bernie, accompanied by an assistant, represented himself.

There were no mechanisms in place for public financing of governor's races as there are now. There was a perception, however, that the electorate wanted cheaper campaigns. In fact, then like now, there was no evidence that the electorate gave a rat's tail how much campaigns cost.

Therefore, the purpose of the meeting was to propose a program for limiting campaign spending in such a way that the opposing campaign would reject the proposition. This was to be accomplished before 3 p.m. to assure a press release blasting the other side for the failed meeting could be in the hands of the television news producers in time to lead the six o'clock news.

Snelling and Hackel had won their respective primaries. So gambit one was to argue about whether any limit to spending going forward should somehow account for the primary expenditures. Clearly, there was some benefit accrued to the candidates as a result of early spending. Should materials be inventoried, at least, and counted in the general campaign? Bumper stickers, balloons, buttons, handbills, posters, stationery ...

It was like discussing nuclear disarmament. First, some assessment of parity followed by inspection schemes. No one took this portion of the meeting too seriously. It was an opportunity to warm up.

We even touched on the effect of soft money.

"Suppose," began the hypothetical proposition, "just suppose that we agreed to a reasonable spending limit, but some third party undertook a series of ads benefiting your campaign, would you be willing to have that count against your cap?"

"What would stop," came the response, "some third party from not only spending my limit but spending it ineffectively?"

"How could we agree on the value?"

"What if we just asked our supporters not to spend money on stuff we didn't authorize?"

"If you authorize it, you have to count it."

"Good point, so unauthorized spending on our behalf wouldn't count."

"Oh, so you have a bunch of groups set up already, eh?"

"We can't be responsible for all our supporters."

Interrupting this bickering stream, candidate Sanders said, "No one has mentioned yet a number. A limit. I know you probably won't like this, but I propose a limit of $200."

Silence.

No one laughed.

Everyone left.

Memory serves me that around $40,000 was spent on that campaign by Snelling to win his first of five general elections.