Campaign Finance: The Forbidden Topic
Yeesh—and I thought last week’s WGBY debate among the three Democratic candidates for the 1st Congressional District seat was overly incumbent-friendly in tone.
Then I read about plans for the second, and final, debate, to be held this evening at WBEC radio in Pittsfield.
In an interview with Berkshire Eagle reporter Clarence Fanto that ran yesterday, moderator Larry Kratka said that he plans to shut down any discussion about the source of candidates’ campaign contributions. The debate, he sad, would focus on “federal and district issues,” not “a lot of accusations.
“We’re not going to go there. I’m going to try to keep them away from pointing fingers at each other,” Kratka told the Eagle.
The article continued: “If the discussion turns to topics such as a candidate’s sources of campaign contributions, Kratka said, ‘I’m going to stop it. That’s not what we’re here to do.’”
That’s funny: I thought debates like tonight’s were supposed to help voters learn about where the candidates stand on important issues—and campaign finance, and the influence of corporate and organized labor money on public policy, certainly falls in that category. Given the amount of public debate there’s been about the effects of the Citizens United decision, the role of super PACs in the current election cycle, and various attempts at reforming the campaign-finance system, I’d say it’s an issue voters probably care about, too. Certainly, it’s been a big issue for the candidates in the 1st District race, coming up time and again during campaign stops and public statements.
Well, make that for two of the candidates: Bill Shein, the Berkshire political writer and activist, and Andrea Nuciforo, Middle Berkshire register of deeds, both of whom have been critical of the corporate and PAC money lining the well-stuffed coffers of incumbent U.S. Rep. Richie Neal. (Neal and Shein have also gone after Nuciforo for his own history accepting corporate money during his time in the state Senate.) Neal, for his part, has tried to deflect accusations that those donations have influenced his positions, even disputing that he takes all that much corporate money in the first place.
PACs accounted for 72 percent of money raised by Neal’s campaign committee this election cycle. The top five industries contributing to his campaign, in order: insurance, health professionals, securities and investment, pharmaceuticals and health products, and real estate, according to Open Secrets.
Did Neal have anything to do with the shutdown on talk about campaign donations? Kratka told the Eagle that the congressman “complained that at WGBY, they didn’t get to enough issues during that hour.”
Kratka’s comments prompted a press release from Shein, who called the gag rule “an outrageous and unprecedented ground rule in a debate among candidates for the United States Congress.”
Shein has made the corrupting influence of corporate money on our political system a major focus of his campaign, pointing out that when politicians feel beholden to the deep pockets that finance their candidacies, it affects policies on the economy, the environment and just about every other crucial issue. Shein calls for meaningful public financing of campaigns and the overturning of the Citizens United decision; his campaign refuses donations of more than $99 or donations from lobbyists or executive of organizations that employ lobbyists.
In his release, Shein said that his campaign has tried to buy ad time on WBEC but has been rebuffed: “Repeated phone calls have not been returned, and promises to forward rates via e-mail have not been met,” he wrote. “While I’m not an expert on the economics of the radio business, I’m fairly certain that radio stations want paying advertisers.” Meanwhile, he noted, Neal has been buying ad time on the station.
In addition, Shein said, the radio station has repeatedly referred to him in debate promotions as a member of the Green-Rainbow party. “This confuses Berkshire County voters into thinking they don’t have an opportunity to vote for me in the crucial Democratic primary on Thursday, Sept. 6., but instead can only vote for me in the general election in November. Because there are no other candidates on the ballot in November, the Sept. 6 primary will decide who will represent the new First District in Congress.”
In a follow-up report in today’s Eagle, Kratka said the station has stopped referring to Shein as a Green-Rainbow candidate in its promotions but did not back away from his position on discussing campaign finance in the debate, saying it’s “a viable issue, but we wanted to come up with fresh topics.” Kratka did say he won’t stop a candidate from talking about the issue if it arises naturally. A station official also denied that it’s ignored efforts by Shein’s campaign to run ads on the station.
The debate airs this evening at 6 p.m. on several Berkshire County radio stations and will also be shown on Pittsfield Community Television. First District voters outside of the Berkshires can watch the debate online, at Pittsfieldtv.org, starting tomorrow.
Will any of the candidates dare broach the verboten topic—and what will happen if they do?