Archive for Thursday, March 6, 2008

Political contributions flow well from county

March 6, 2008

Many Lawrence residents will declare with pride their status as the lone patch of blue in the big red state of Kansas.

And they'll toot their horns when it comes to telling the rest of the state just what they think.

But when it comes to transforming those words into candidate donations, Lawrence isn't quite the lone ranger.

According to a Lawrence Journal-World/6News analysis of election contributions in northeast Kansas since the last congressional election, Lawrence has one of the highest rates of donations per person of any community in the state, $2.04 per person. And it donates more in raw dollars - $163,353 - than most Kansas communities.

But Topeka, among all of the large communities in northeast Kansas, donates more in raw dollars and more per person than any other community, including the wealthy Kansas City suburbs in Johnson County. Residents of the nearly 40 ZIP codes that make up Topeka donated more than $420,564, or about $3.44 per person using 2000 census estimates.

Kansas University political science professor Allan Cigler said whether people make donations is often based simply on whether they're asked.

"A high proportion of the people who donate are activists themselves," Cigler said. "But (presidential candidate Barack) Obama has contributions from 1 million people. The Internet has really helped make that possible."

And while Topeka and Lawrence donate more, Manhattan holds its own in terms of donations per person. Manhattan residents donated about $1.85 per person. In Lawrence, the lion's share of recent presidential donations went to Barack Obama: $23,650, compared with $7,750 to Hillary Clinton, $4,600 for John McCain and $1,000 for Mike Huckabee.

A lot of the donations came in small amounts, from individual donors. Cigler said these types of donations are usually given by people who truly believe in the candidates.

Sending money away

Ernest Pogge, of Lawrence, donated $300 to the Republican National Committee, but also nearly $1,000 to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina, someone who neither represents him nor does he know personally.

"I've been a fan of hers in the past, even before she got involved with running for the Senate," Pogge said. "I'm also a fan of her husband," former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas.

Pogge said he has to feel a connection to a candidate in order to send a donation. Cigler said that philosophy is common.

But sometimes the choice to contribute to a distant candidate is less personal than professional.

Michael Massey and Darrell Pavelka, high-ranking executives at Payless ShoeSource in Topeka, both made $1,500 contributions to the re-election campaign for U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. The company's political action committee also made a $1,000 donation to each of his last two re-election campaigns.

Rangel, a Democrat, is chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee, which is considering a proposal to reduce tariffs on imported shoes, something very important to Payless.

Another local candidate who has benefited in money from outside state lines is Jim Ryun. Ryun is trying to retake the seat he lost to Nancy Boyda in 2006.

Cigler said Ryun has received a lot of money from wealthy donors in Texas.

"The parties develop a list of races they think will be competitive and then they pass that around, seeking donations," Cigler said.

Escalating expenses

In recent elections, the amount of money donated and the number of donors has increased dramatically.

"It's far outpacing inflation," Cigler said.

Donald Chambers, a retired Kansas University professor, said he started giving money only recently because he felt the country was on the wrong path. The encouragement of his friends didn't hurt, either.

"I've never been so politically active and eager to donate to a candidate than I was to Nancy Boyda," Chambers said. In November 2006, Boyda claimed the Kansas 2nd District congressional seat that had been held for 10 years by Ryun.

Chambers cited dissatisfaction with the incumbent and a desire to see change nationally for his sudden interest in giving money to a politician.

"Among the people I spend time with, there was an urgency in the last election that everyone felt," Chambers said. "There was a lot of peer pressure. I participated in that."

Cigler said that while the big increases are visible at the presidential level, the same patterns are leading to more expensive races all the way down to the state Legislature.

He predicted that the competitors for the 2nd District congressional seat would each spend $2 million to $3 million this year, and he said there are already state legislative races where candidates are spending $100,000 or more.

Concerns raised

The biggest obstacle facing the American election system, Cigler said, will be finding a way to reduce the amount of influence money has on elections.

"The trick is to make money not talk as decisively as it does in elections now," he said.

No presidential campaign has been financed entirely by public money, Cigler said, and it's unlikely that one will be if the current system remains in place. Candidates who accept federal funding are limited in how much they can spend.

"There's not enough money to run the type of campaign the candidates want," Cigler said.

And even if more were pumped into the federal election financing system, there are two major concerns: whether voters would tolerate what is often viewed as welfare for political candidates, and whether it could stand a Supreme Court challenge.

Cigler thinks no on both counts. In fact, he doubts the current campaign finance laws would stand a challenge with the existing justices.

And that would be OK with Pogge, the Lawrence Republican.

"I'd just as soon the campaign donations were not government controlled, but people were free to contribute all they want to the person they'd like to see in office. That's part of democracy."

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