To Campaign Finance Reform Advocates, the Webster Scandal Was Proof Positive Proposition a Would Limit Donations, Aiming to Cut Big Money's Political Role
Terry Ganey Post-Dispatch Jefferson City Bureau Chief, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
WHEN CAMPAIGN FINANCE reformers launched an initiative petition last year, they assembled at the law office of Morris B. Kessler in downtown St. Louis.
In one year before the 1992 general election, Kessler had contributed an attention-getting sum of $28,684 to then-Attorney General William L. Webster's campaign for Missouri governor.
"We thought the Webster-Kessler relationship was the best symbol of why there needs to be campaign finance reform in the state," said Craig Robbins, an organizer for the petitioners. "That's probably the clearest connection between campaign contributions and public policy."
Robbins' group, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), succeeded in getting enough signatures to put the petition on the Nov. 8 ballot as Proposition A.
At the same time he was contributing to Webster's campaign, Kessler was collecting thousands of dollars from the Second Injury Fund, a state workers' compensation program defended by Webster's office. Kessler later testified in federal court that he had made the campaign contributions to get larger settlements from the state fund.
Webster denied any connection. Both men are serving federal prison sentences. Webster pleaded guilty to charges that he used state resources in his political campaigns, and Kessler pleaded guilty to abuse of the Second Injury Fund.
Getting The Big Money Out
If Proposition A's provisions had been in effect three years ago, Kessler would have overspent the state's campaign contribution limit by $28,384. Proposition A would put a low ceiling on how much can be contributed to candidates for state and local offices. In the case of a candidate for governor, for example, the limit would be $300 for the primary and general elections.
"This is something that will get the big money out of politics," said Andy Igrejas, a spokesman for Missourians for Campaign Finance Reform, a coalition of groups pushing for Proposition A's passage. "The goal is to limit the influence of special interests in government and make campaigns more democratic and make officeholders more accountable. . . .
This will start a process of restoring the public's faith in government."
Certainly, there is a perception in Missouri that too much money is spent in political campaigns. A poll conducted in July and released recently by the League of Women Voters showed that 90 percent of those questioned believed "there's way too much money in politics."
But is sharply limiting how much can be contributed in an election the way to solve the problem?
"It's not a wise idea," said Ronald M. Levin, a law professor at Washington University.
"It could have some negative effects on the political system by making it difficult or impossible for candidates to finance their campaigns. One way or another, we have to have an election system in which candidates have resources to get their message out," Levin added. "People know very little about their candidates and their views now. I think it's complete fiction to say candidates are spending too much now."
Proposition A would limit campaign contributions to $300 for statewide offices, $200 for elections in districts of more than 100,000 residents and $100 in districts with less than 100,000. The limits apply to an "election cycle," meaning both a primary and general election. The same limit applies to all sources of contributions - individuals, political action committees, businesses and unions.
Campaign finance laws in force now contain no limits on contributions. But a bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mel Carnahan will impose contribution and spending limits in January. Those contribution limits are $250 for each election for the state house, $500 for the state Senate and $1,000 for statewide offices. …