Friday, April 14, 2006

Mayoral Campaign Contribution Limits

Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial
April 14, 2006
Don't evade; reform

The city's would-be mayoral candidates should stop thumbing their noses at Philadelphia's new limits on campaign contributions. If it takes a court battle to make them mind their manners, so be it.

Thanks to a government watchdog group, the Committee of Seventy, that court fight has been joined.

On Tuesday, a member of that group filed suit against six men regarded as likely contenders for Mayor Street's job next year. A second lawsuit, filed Wednesday by Councilman Michael A. Nutter - the only candidate fully abiding by the donor limits - turns up the heat [emphasis added].

According to Nutter, nearly $1 million in combined over-the-limit donations have been raised by the targets of his lawsuit: U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.), State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), former City Controller Jonathan A. Saidel, and electricians union chief John Dougherty. In its lawsuit, Seventy named those four, as well as Nutter and self-financed millionaire candidate Tom Knox.

The best outcome of the suits would be for the courts to clarify when the city's limits kick in. Is it only upon a candidate's formal declaration, or when any exploratory committee begins raising funds?

But the suits could backfire. There's the risk a court could find fatal flaws in the city's 2003 law, which capped annual giving by individuals at $2,500 per candidate and $10,000 for political committees. When the law was enacted, critics contended it was preempted by the state election code, which sets no donation limits.

It would better to get voluntary compliance with the limits, avoiding a court fight. The likely candidates who are evading the limits contend the delay of their formal announcements gives them leeway.

This may be technically accurate. From the standpoint of good government and citizen confidence, though, it stinks. Philadelphia needs politicians who aspire to uphold higher standards, not to finagle technicalities.

Remember the backdrop to this campaign reform: the city's pay-to-play political culture, where big donors often are rewarded with city business. A federal probe of City Hall has tripped up two dozen people - including Councilman Rick Mariano, convicted in March.

Whatever loopholes are in the campaign law, its spirit is crystal clear: Candidates should not take large sums from contributors, because that piles up the political debts that spawn pay-to-play and erode confidence in government. That's why city business leaders and the Philadelphia Bar Association urged their colleagues not to give more than the limits.

How can candidates claim to be all about cleaning up City Hall when their campaigns are perpetuating a key flaw of pay-to-play politics?

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