Magazine article Insight on the News

Campaign Reform Should Start at Local Level

Magazine article Insight on the News

Campaign Reform Should Start at Local Level

Article excerpt

From selling sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom to funneling foreign campaign contributions, few disagree that money corrupts our democracy. "Money is the mother's milk of politics," the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once said. Yet those investigating campaign corruption have forgotten another Tip truism: All politics is local. So while much huffing and puffing comes from White House revelations, the most egregious financial abuses take place not in Washington, but in your hometown.

Worse, these local shakedowns not only have influenced public policy, they actually have changed the very structure of many state and local governments. In North Carolina, the transportation department is run by a board of 26 political appointees. With $2.5 billion of road-building money doled out each year, a panel seat is a plum appointment.

So how does one get appointed to the board? Transportation background? Previous government experience? A driver's license? No. Apparently, the key is campaign contributions.

According to Democracy South, a Chapel Hill, N.C., watchdog group, the families of the 21 members appointed by Democratic North Carolina Gov. James Hunt gave an average of $11,000 each to his 1996 campaign. In total, according to campaign spending reports, they gave at least $246,499.

One businessman even wrote a letter to Hunt asking him to return $24,500 in campaign contributions after not being given the board seat he claims he was promised. The businessman wrote, "I lost all confidence in the system."

Not surprisingly, newspaper reports suggested that several board members pushed road projects that benefited properties they own. Land for new roads allegedly was purchased for many times above the market value and many roads were constructed that never would have been built otherwise.

The Raleigh, N.C., News and Observer reported that one road project, a $3 million road adjacent to the property of a transportation board member, is called "The Road to Nowhere" by residents of the county where it is located. The Conservation Council of North Carolina, as part of its effort to fight unwanted highways, maintains a list of the Top Ten Transportation Boondoggles, composed primarily of projects pushed through the approval process by board members without time for public comment or debate. …

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