Denver Women's Commission
Trust in Grovernment - July 2002
TRUST IN GOVERNMENT
"Is there any point in calling my representative? Don't they just listen to the big campaign contributors?" a woman asked as I encouraged an organization to express their views to their legislators. Her question, filled with cynicism and powerlessness, left me sad and frustrated. "Big contributors can get the ear of lawmakers, but ultimately it is constituents who vote politicians in or out of office." I replied. Yet her concern is not isolated.
Sometimes, our elected officials vote opposite to our beliefs. If the vote reflects the will of the bulk of their constituents, it is not a failure of the system. Or their personal experience or deeply held values might warrant an unpopular vote. We become cynical when votes reflect not constituent needs, or even personal values, but the needs and wants of campaign contributors.
The bottom line can be power, not money. But money is required to gain power. Candidates need to advertise themselves to be elected. Even the smallest campaign brochure is not free. Candidates in Colorado spent $8 million on campaigns in 2000. Where did the money come from? Over 17% came from candidates themselves. The positive of a self-funded campaign is that one need make fewer commitments to campaign donors. The down side is that only the rich can run. Our country does not seem amicable to the idea of publicly funded campaigns, collecting a few dollars from everyone. Fewer than one in 100 Coloradans makes any political contribution. Are you one of them? Politicians are forced into fundraising if they want to succeed. Since it is easier to raise fewer, but larger contributions, attention gets focused on potential large donors. Campaign finance reform limiting large donors have widespread popular appeal, but not to those who must raise campaign contributions.
Without advertising, where can voters get information? Candidate debates are ideal. I have found candidate-produced materials to be generally worthless -- seemingly all are supporters of education, families, safe neighborhoods, cost-effective government, good health care, etc. My questions are:
1. What is their voting record on issues that concern me? A rating of elected officials by various interest groups is available at www.vote-smart.org. You can see how they were rated by NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the Colorado Women's Agenda, NRA, the Farm Bureau, Colorado Union of Taxpayers, Gay Rights, etc. Look for a high rating by groups you agree with.
2. How do they stand on the issues (especially if they are not an elected official with a voting record)? www.vote-smart.org also lists candidates' answers to the National Political Awareness Test, a series of value statements. You get a good idea of how they might vote. In the absence of candidate-specific information, I look at their party affiliation and the values prioritize by that party.
3. Who gives to their campaign? What interests are reflected in their supporters? For candidate for U.S. House and Senate, check the Center for Responsive Politics' site: www.opensecrets.org. For state level candidates, consult the National Institute on Money in State Politics' site: www.followthemoney.org
Women's Vote 2002
Former State Rep. Peggy Kerns, now Director of the National Center for Ethics in Government, kicked off Women's Vote 2002 at a luncheon that also served to welcome new Colorado Women's Agenda Executive Director Diane Mourning. Voter registration, education and "get out the vote" are the three prongs of the coalition effort.
In her address, Kerns chose not to focus on some of the blatant ethical issues in politics-- campaign finance, gifts and honorariums, conflicts of interests, etc. Rather she focused on the most common ethical issues that lawmakers face: how to balance competing values in determining one's vote. For example: should helping the many outweigh hurting the few? If transportation is important and health care is important, how does a lawmaker chose funding one over the other?
To become involved in Women's Vote 2002, contact the Colorado Women's Agenda: 303-863-7336 or www.womensagenda.org