The “Pay to Play” Diversion

Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero and I don’t agree on a lot of things, but he’s right on the money in his criticism of the silly “pay-to-play” laws proposed by publicity seeking politicians as a “cure” for political corruption and high taxes in our state.

Conservatives and Republicans should read Ferriero’s comments and applaud him — not criticize him. He is right on when he argues that “certain state laws have stripped and prevented citizens from supporting political candidates and their parties, as such, preventing them from exercising their rights in our democracy. At some point, action should be taken to protect these basic rights guaranteed by the Constitution."

For too long, in response to Ferriero’s aggressive fundraising and subsequent success at the polls, Republicans have tried to level the playing field not by going out and raising their own money, but by whining about the success the other side has had.

The push for these “pay to play” laws comes from these beaten down and defeated politicians on one side, but also from another side as well: millionaire politicians who can fund their own campaigns, liberal newspaper editors who believe they are the only ones with a right to self-expression, and labor union bosses who are always exempt from whatever laws are passed.

At risk with the proliferation of election regulations is our freedom to stand for our beliefs. That is why, had Ferriero brought this historic lawsuit to defend our system of fair and open elections, I would have gladly joined.

Some believe that Ferriero’s attempt to challenge these clearly unconstitutional laws prior to an election was a foolish action that would have helped Republicans. But with Republicans failing to condemn even one of the 94 new Democratic taxes passed in the last six years — including a 7 percent sales tax, a 9 percent income tax and a $500 small business tax — it’s hard to believe that the “pay to play” issue will be their saving grace.

Even while Ferriero suggests he will file the suit right after the November elections, why would Republican candidates running against liberal opponents who supported the biggest tax increases in any state history stop talking about taxes and instead talk about how Republicans are supposedly morally superior to Democrats.

New Jersey’s biggest political diversion is the “pay to play” mantra of politicians desperate to avoid the tax issue and Republicans have totally fallen into the trap. With the highest property and sales taxes in the country, the worst income tax, and the fastest growing debt in the nation, Trenton has proven dangerous even for many Republicans.

For too many of our elected officials, it is easier to grab a catchy sound bite like “stop pay to play” as if it is the solution to high taxes. But voters aren’t that shallow and want more substance. Voters want to see what Republicans propose to do other than alleging “we’re honest and they aren’t.” And voters know that stopping some local vendor from buying a $500 ticket to a political fund raiser is not going to lower property taxes forced through the roof by massive pension giveaways, uncontrolled binding arbitration awards and ridiculous state mandates — none of which these so-called “reformers” want to address.

Campaign contributions from vendors and professionals have no impact on taxes. Politicians who promulgate this nonsense are diverting attention from the real problems: runaway spending, lavish employee benefits, and an expanding entitlement state. All while continuing to protect their own lucrative pensions and benefits.

The same Trenton metaphysicians who are driving the state to its economic knees would go further in creating a bureaucracy they will manipulate based not on what promotes free and open elections, but on their own self interests. A pinnacle can only rise to the height its base allows. To undermine that base, supporters of this “reform” agenda want to “level the playing field” by limiting what candidates can raise.

When I first ran for Mayor against an entrenched Democrat, I recruited a team including council candidates and professionals committed to a conservative change. The financial support we received from these individuals made our victory possible, and we would not have won had we not raised the money to deliver our message.

As a Mayor, I needed professionals who could implement the agenda I was elected to pursue. I wanted the ability to appoint people who supported my views, and were committed to my success. You cannot put these positions out so that the lowest bidder gets the job. These positions belong to people committed to common principles.

Why would no-bid professionals contribute to a political campaign? Not because they will get work if they contribute — and there has been more than one person disappointed that their campaign contribution to me did not result in any government work — but because if we lose the opposition will replace our people with their people. When voters elect a Democratic government they expect a Democratic administration and likewise when Republicans are elected.

Make no mistake — any public official who “sells” an office to the highest bidder is not just a criminal but is also a fool. An elected official is responsible to the voters and any appointee who puts that official in a bad light hurts that politician at the polls.

I want to live in a land where I am free to stand up for what I believe and contribute to the candidate of my choice. It’s un-American to take away individuals’ First Amendment right to express themselves by supporting political candidates with financial contributions. Campaign reports are easily obtainable on the Internet and if voters care about who gives what to whom then the opposition can make the issue.
Americans should be allowed to donate as much and to whomever they want and if the public is unhappy with the source of the candidate’s funding they can vote them out of office. Unlimited contributions with full disclosure provide a fair opportunity for all who have what it takes to deliver. The candidate who stands forth with a bold vision will inspire supporters to write checks. The one who whines about others’ fundraising success is the one who can’t raise money.

Laws limiting campaign contributions are nothing more than attempts by those who cannot inspire people to regulate those who can. Republicans should be against anything that punishes successful people and subsidizes ineffectiveness.

On the field of open battle, Democrats run the risk that some Republican will rise to the occasion, providing an inspirational vision and raise the money needed to take the checkered flag and ride in Victory Lane. Joe Ferriero should be commended for putting principle above the simple political reality that the very laws he opposes are the same ones that have emasculated the once formidable Bergen County Republican Organization and made him the “boss” so hated and envied today.

Steve Lonegan is the Mayor of Bogota, NJ, and Executive Director of Americans for Prosperity – New Jersey. Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFP Foundation) are committed to educating citizens about economic policy and mobilizing those citizens as advocates in the public policy process. He is a prolific writer, having been published in newspapers and blogs. He currently has a book in pre-publication on the impact of New Jersey state government on the well being of the taxpayers of the state, where he offers solid and workable solutions. The “Pay to Play” Diversion