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Bare reform 

House Speaker Jim Black gets stripped, but big-money politics keeps on dancin

When I was a kid, back in pre-cynical times (the "Ask not what your country can do for you" era), I was a fan of Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire, who died in December at age 90. Proxmire was elected in 1957 to fill the vacancy caused by Joe McCarthy's death. He was re-elected five times, always with a huge majority. In one campaign, his total spending was $180. That's right. Proxmire raised little or no money for his campaigns, and generally spent only what he needed for gas and the stamps he used to return unsolicited contributions.

On the other hand, he was a tireless campaigner who came back to Wisconsin almost every weekend to talk with his constituents.

Nominally, Proxmire was a Democrat, and a progressive one. But he was also a crusty gadfly, famous for the "Golden Fleece" awards he bestowed monthly on wasteful government spenders. "A liberal need not be a wastrel," he liked to say.

"Prox" hated pork-barrel bills, congressional junkets and boondoggles, especially the military's but also his own party's many "high-minded" varieties.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY V.C. ROGERS

And he never let a lobbyist pay for his dinner, or anything else.

Contrast this with our own N.C. House Speaker Jim Black, whose money-grubbing is so shameful and so obvious that even our toothless State Board of Elections is going to look into it, with three days of hearings starting Wednesday.

It's almost too easy to pick on Black, but what the hell, he's a pol--which just means he's a man of his own, cynical times--and he's an inept pol at that, one who takes money from strip club owners and video-poker crooks while doing them favors, which embarrasses his fellow pols only--it should be emphasized--when he gets caught at it.

Oh, and while the rest of us were debating whether to have a state lottery, Black was dining out serially on the tab of a lobbyist for one of the gaming companies, and while accompanied by his "political director," Meredith Norris, who was working for the same outfit but still operating out of Black's office, or--when not there--using Black's state-issued laptop.

This is what they used to call, back in Proxmire's day, stupid. And corrupt.

Finally, Mr. Magoo-like, Black slipped a line into the state budget one dark night, and suddenly every 5-year-old who wants to go to kindergarten is gonna be hit up for $75 or $100 for an eye exam by an optometrist. Forget that the kid sees great and a pediatrician has already screened her. Speaker Black gets a lot of money from optometrists. And--are you ready?--he is one.

Where's that Golden Fleece when we need it?

Enter now our friends at the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying Reform. This is the group that last year forced a change in the reporting requirements such that lobbyists will have to disclose (starting next year--why rush?) what they spend schmoozing legislators. Drinks, golf, tickets to the Masters (yes, Black again--he got 'em from a company that wants to bring you ticket scalping), all must be reported--no more "goodwill" loophole.

Which is good.

Seizing the chance offered by the Board of Elections hearings, the coalition stepped forward again the other day to say that lobbyists really should be banned from buying anything for legislators unless it's "educational" or costs less than $10. It also wants lobbyists banned from being legislators' fund-raisers, which young Norris was only starting to be good at, but which is the stock-in-trade for several of our lobbying elite.

The coalition includes many progressive organizations including the N.C. Public Interest Research Group, the N.C. Justice Center, the Common Sense Foundation and Common Cause, whose executive director, Bob Phillips, gets big hugs for leading the charge. But it also includes several conservative groups, including the John Locke Foundation, and therein lies the problem.

The conservatives, as coalition member and former state Republican Party Chair Bill Cobey cheerfully acknowledged, are into "transparency"--they want you to know who's giving--but they're not alarmed by how much is being given, or spent, in modern-day politics.

Progressives, on the other hand, are alarmed. "N.C. PIRG certainly thinks that big-money politics is a big problem," says its director, Elizabeth Ouzts.

But, in the interests of coalition harmony, the two camps have agreed to push a very limited set of reforms, in effect handcuffing the street dealers--the lobbyists--while the real special interests are allowed to run wild.

Black's present travails illustrate, in a small way, what I mean. The video poker "industry" in North Carolina is a $100 million-a-year business, according to Democracy North Carolina, the progressive watchdog group whose muckraking investigations led directly to this week's hearings. The industry is represented in Raleigh by the N.C. Amusement Machine Association, which spends six figures a year on lobbying, and it collectively contributed at least $650,000 to state political campaigns in 2000 and 2002.

Black's political committee alone got more than $100,000 from the industry--that we know of--in the '02 elections.

Little of this money, however, was contributed by NCAMA's lobbyist. Most of it came from the members--the truck stops, convenience stores, pool halls and, yes, strip clubs where the 10,000 video-poker machines are located.

And if the lobbyist caused them to give it, no reason his wife or close friend couldn't perform the same function.

Democracy North Carolina's been screaming for years about: how much money the video-poker industry contributes; the fact that their machines aren't supposed to pay out in cash (and no more than $10 per player per day in merchandise), but they do, which means gamblers lose lots of money playing them; the fact that all 100 county sheriffs want them outlawed, which you'd think would carry some weight in the General Assembly; but while the Senate has voted twice to ban them, the House under Speaker Black didn't vote on either bill.

But neither the sheer amount of money the industry was giving, nor Black's determination to protect it, is what got either of them in trouble. Because neither, unfortunately, is against the law.

What is against the law is hiding contributors' identities--and evading the $4,000 per election contribution limit--by sending your money in under somebody else's name. Video-poker money ostensibly came to Black from people who told Democracy NC that they'd never heard of Black, but did know a truck-stop owner, et cetera.

Worse, from a PR standpoint, it came from strip-club owners like David Fairchild, a Texan who owns a chain of clubs including one in Charlotte, but who was listed as a "restaurateur" by Black's committee. And from Fairchild's friend Walter (Slim) Baucom, of Charlotte, a strip-club owner who shuttled his money to Black via such intermediaries as the "Tourism PAC" ($4,000 in October 2004) and "NC BikePAC," which got $1,000 from Baucom in January 2005 and immediately gave the same amount to Black--the only contribution it made in the first six months of the year.

The way they were stuffing money into his committee, Black might as well have been dancing with a pole himself.


Soon, I'd say, Black will be out as speaker. And the next speaker will presumably be more careful about taking money from "amusement" folk. But unless there's a sea change in state politics, he or she will still be raising buckets-full of money for the party, and getting it from people--and special interests--who want something in return.

This is why Proxmire returned all contributions: because he knew that the givers would be calling soon, and he wanted to cast his votes based on what he thought was right, not be influenced--nor cause his constituents to think he was influenced--by who gave him money.

What a quaint notion, eh?

Now every pol is a crook and on the take, as far as most of the voters are concerned. (Thanks, John Locke! And Jesse Helms!) And only an idiot tries to run without money, because what if her opponent accuses her of something--as he will--and she can't defend herself or accuse him back?

In 2004, Democratic House candidates raised almost $13 million, and most of it came not from strip clubs but from the banks, utilities, construction companies and real-estate firms who control state government and get their money back in spades.

The only difference is, they play for much bigger stakes than the video-poker machines. And they keep their clothes on while working.

Some day, perhaps, it'll be considered just as shameful to take their money and do their bidding--from cutting corporate tax rates to keeping the utility monopolies intact to making sure the new highways go to the new shopping centers owned by your real-estate buddies. (One of Black's lesser-known transgressions.)

Maybe it'll be illegal to contribute money to candidates if you or your company has any financial interest in the way they vote. And we'll have public financing of campaigns.

But that's another column. And another world.

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