Sometimes You Get What You Pay For

Since you ask, I’ve spent the last several weeks pursuing a

project that will manifest itself between two hard covers sometime in late

November. As this sort of work requires a certain intensity and focus, I’ve

been following Henry David Thoreau’s short guide to a happy life-I’ve been

skimping on newspapers, periodicals and other chronicles of the day’s events.

(“To a philosopher, all news, as it is called, is gossip, and they who edit and

read it are old women over their tea,” Thoreau wrote. Geez,

and this guy didn’t live long enough to watch cable television.) I’m not sure I

would recommend such an existence to paid subscribers of this publication, but

I confess I have emerged from the Walden of long-term research with a more

philosophical attitude toward what others consider vitally important. So rave

on, ye pundits of the airwaves and Op-Ed pages, ye masters and mistresses of

the ephemeral and transient-ye shall no longer inspire acid to creep into my

esophagus.

Actually, on second thought ….

In preparation for my return to this space, I did what all

self-respecting, buzz-seeking, postmodern Op-Ed-ers must do to remain hip and

relevant: I watched television. In the course of this reimmersion into what’s really important-at least to some of the great

tea-drinkers of the day-I happened upon a campaign advertisement for City

Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Mr. Hevesi has always struck me as quite capable, but

for reasons that are not quite clear, the tag line for the Comptroller’s

advertisements reads like a list of the subway lines that have been diverted

from the Manhattan Bridge.

Not particularly memorable, although it at least serves a public purpose in

reminding us that the Sixth Avenue

line just ain’t what it used to be. No doubt this is not the intended message

of Mr. Hevesi’s ad campaign.

The man behind this curious strategy is Hank Morris, a

famous political consultant. Under Mr. Morris’ direction, Mr. Hevesi has been

campaigning hard for many months and has spent millions of dollars, and yet he

hasn’t broken 20 percent in the polls. This is a startling development for a

man who has won election to citywide office twice.

Mr. Morris appeared before the city Campaign Finance Board

on Aug. 6 to explain why he was charging Mr. Hevesi no money for his vaunted

services as a campaign guru. He presented himself as just another humble

volunteer on behalf of his longtime friend, Mr. Hevesi. Mr. Morris regards

himself as a good deal more clever than the average

campaign guru, and he thought he had found a way around the rules that govern

the city’s admirable system of public campaign finance. Last May, Greg Sargent

reported in this newspaper that Mr. Morris was telling big-shot contributors

that he would work on the cheap in order that he might spend more money on

those television ads that seem like public-service announcements for the

Transit Authority. Since all four Democratic Mayoral candidates have agreed to

keep their spending capped at $5.3 million, it follows that the candidate who

can keep expenses low will have an advantage over his rivals.

Members of the Campaign Finance Board found this arrangement

somewhat irregular and rejected Mr. Morris’ claims to altruism. The rules of

the game demand that candidates pay fair-market value for the goods and

services they receive, lest anybody gain the financial advantage that public

campaign finance is supposed to alleviate. “The distinction [that Mr. Morris

tried to make] was not tenable,” Father Joseph O’Hare, the C.F.B.’s chairman,

told me. “Now I’m just a simple preacher man, but the other board members are

lawyers, and we’re all in agreement on this.”

At first, Mr. Morris stuck by his position-and, in doing so, he put at risk the public dollars that were supposed to

flow into the campaign’s treasury. Mr. Morris vowed to find the best litigation

firm in America to hound Father O’Hare into submission-a threat the Hevesi

campaign wisely withdrew, perhaps on the advice of those who argued that it’s

one thing to make indecipherable political advertisements, and it’s quite

another to tangle with an eloquent, white-haired Jesuit priest with a record of

civic activism few politicians can match.

This whole business could have been avoided if Mr. Morris

had taken advantage of the out that Father O’Hare and the C.F.B. generously

afforded him. If the C.F.B.’s smell test requires that a candidate pay

fair-market value for a consultant’s services, and if the candidate in question

(Mr. Hevesi) has performed poorly despite many advantages, could not the

consultant (Mr. Morris) have argued that he is, in fact, getting fair-market

value-i.e., $0-for his services?

These are the kinds of insights one gets when one has been

away from headlines and deadlines for some time. Sometimes You Get What You Pay For