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By Ciro Scotti A day or two after Mike Bloomberg became the next mayor of New York, Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott was on TV complaining about what he sees as a disturbing trend -- the election of really rich guys to local, state, and federal office.
Wealthy men and women who choose politics as a second career are not exactly breaking news: Out of 50 senators, half of them are worth $3 million or more, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. And while the House has plenty of members of modest means -- like Gary Condit, for example -- the well-off are certainly as well represented as the hoi polloi. Roll Call placed Representative Amos Houghton (R-N.Y.), heir to the Corning Glass fortune, at the top of its 2001 richest list, with a worth estimated at $700 million to $1 billion.
What makes Lott's complaint outlandish on its face, however, is that for the past half-dozen years, the former Majority Leader and Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have worked hand in jeweled glove to prevent their colleagues John McCain, Russ Feingold, and the forces of campaign-finance reform from finally tasting victory. So if a political system awash in cash is not what troubles the smooth-talking senator from Mississippi, what is?
OFF THE PARTY LINE. Perhaps it's this: Impossibly rich candidates like Bloomberg and Jon Corzine of New Jersey, who spent some $60 million in a hostile race to take over a Senate seat, run on their own dime. Instead of being beholden to the organization that helped get them elected -- in Corzine's case, the Democratic Party -- they take office with far fewer favors to repay than pols who must rely on their party for money and foot soldiers. In fact, Corzine spread so much cash around Jersey in the months before the election of 2000 that he's the one holding the IOUs.
Candidates who bankroll their own campaigns are also freer to pursue their personal agendas, with the party line as only a broad context. Indeed, Corzine is arguably much more liberal than the majority of Jersey voters. And in the immediate hours after his election, Bloomberg, a nominal Republican who blew through more than $50 million in getting to City Hall, reached out to union leaders and Democrats who had only shaken hands with his GOP predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, in a receiving line.
Lott is right to fret about this entirely democratic and, at the same time, antithetically democratic trend. In a free society, people should have the right to spend as much of their money as they want to get other people to listen to their views and opt for their leadership. On the other hand, shelling out obscene amounts of cash to overwhelm rivals seems at odds with America's democratic experience and leaves the gilded victor somehow less answerable to the electorate.
CUTTING OUT THE MIDDLEMEN. That, however, is probably not what has Lott's starched underwear in knots. Like the car dealers who rebelled against ousted Ford CEO Jacques Nasser when he proposed selling directly to the public, professional politicians must be disturbed to see themselves cut out of the sale. Lott, McConnell & Co. are political middlemen: They rely on moneyed special interests to fund their campaigns and then use the power they derive from the public to satisfy the aims of their backers. And around it goes.
With the public now wise to the fact that their elected representatives spend half their evenings raising cash for their next run from lobbyists with laundry lists of gotta-haves, a Mr. Moneybags with no strings attached has obvious appeal. Who wants, or needs, a senator or mayor with a night job?
With Lara Christianson in New York Scotti, senior editor for government and sports business, offers his views every week in A Not-So-Neutral Corner, only for BW Online