Monday, October 3, 2011

In Defense of Liberally Contributing Conservatives*

*Alternate title, "This is How You Disagree With Someone Without Being a Complete Ass"
My esteemed colleague, Loudoun Insider, recently offered a series of posts here and here questioning political contributions from local businessmen, raising legitimate and fair questions about potential conflicts of interest.  While I agree that the candidates should carefully consider how they would address those potential conflicts, I see nothing wrong with the contributions per se.  The real test (and it’s a big one) is how these candidates will handle those challenges if elected.  Until then, I’m going to give them all the benefit of the doubt.

People contribute to candidates’ campaigns in different ways and for different reasons.  Most of those who contribute do so by stuffing envelopes, walking door to door or putting on a bumper sticker.  Others contribute financially, some more than others.  Motivations differ, too.  Some, if not most, are motivated by an ideological kinship with the candidate.  Others are motivated by the opportunity to build access and influence with decision makers.  One thing they all have in common, though, is an unspoken hope, if not expectation, that their efforts will cause the candidate to least remember them once elected.  In that way, each contributor, big or small, stands to gain some degree of self-importance or influence in the political process if his or her candidate wins.

Although the resulting influence cannot reasonably be denied, I believe the contributions made by these businessmen are motivated primarily by the ideological kinship with Republican candidates.  They just happen to use a checkbook instead of a bumper to help the out.  As LI pointed out, John Wood’s contributions have been almost exclusively to Republicans as have Bill Dean’s.  If they were really looking to guarantee influence, they would be making similar contributions to the Republicans’ opponents. 

I don’t think these contributions are outrageous, either.  Take the case of Ralph Buona, whom I believe to be a solid candidate.  He probably has taken the most from these businessmen (a total $5,000 from Mr. Dean and another $5,000 from Mr. Wood), but the contributions still total less than 20% of what he has raised.  Moreover, he’s a businessman himself, and it’s only logical that the people he knows, and thus his likely contributors, would be from the business community.  Certainly, these contributions are nothing at all like the $25,000 that El-Atari gave to Sheriff Steve Simpson in either amount or character.  As such, the contributions do not strike me as so large or unusual as to inherently influence his vote as a supervisor. 

That said, BOS candidates still need to do some advance planning on the complex and emotionally charged OpenBand issue.  Accepting larger than average contributions from OpenBand’s owner, MC Dean, with the OpenBand contract in play next year could create perception problems.  Indeed, even assuming renewal of the OpenBand contract truly is the best thing to do for the County, how can such a supervisor vote for the contract without looking like he or she has been paid off?  It’s quite similar to the situation with developers and zoning issues with the 2003-2007 board.  Whether the votes were proper or not, supervisors who took substantial contributions from these special interests repeatedly voted in their favor, creating the appearance of undue influence.  

 And we all know how that worked out for them.

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