Tim Cahill has a knack for keeping himself in the news, though not always in a good way. Today, he offers us a way to reflect on how badly screwed up the priorities of our campaign finance laws are. Consider Treasurer Tim’s two recent missteps:
- As State Treasurer, Cahill raised tens of thousands of dollars from out-of-state people who apparently don’t even know who he is, but who sent him contributions at the request of one Michael Ruane, who, it turns out, manages millions of dollars of the state’s pension fund. Over $40,000 of these donations arrived on the day before Ruane’s firm was given an additional $100 million to invest.
- Cahill’s campaign sent fundraising emails to state lawmakers at their State House email address. Apparently, no donations resulted.
Which of these is illegal? Which of these should be illegal? Which of these practices represents the greater threat to democratic values?
To me, practice #1 is clearly the greater threat. It verges on (if it doesn’t actually constitute) classic pay-to-play. It appears to leverage the enormous state pension fund as a means of filling up campaign coffers; it results in pressure being applied both to Ruane (from Cahill’s office, with whom Ruane does business) and to Ruane’s out-of-state contacts (from Ruane, with whom they do business); it’s the classic toxic mix of money and politics; it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes people cynical about government.
Practice #2 is a technical misstep. Someone sent the wrong mass email to the wrong set of email addresses. Big whoop – the same individuals could have received the exact same solicitation at a different email address, or at their homes via telephone or regular mail. No doubt most of the recipients simply deleted the email without giving it another thought.
And yet, as we know, practice #2 is illegal and has already resulted in a request for an OCPF investigation, while practice #1 is legal (unless there’s more to the story than has emerged so far).
The campaign finance rules, it seems to me, are very good at punishing slobs who aren’t careful about paperwork and database management. What they are not good at is averting threats to democracy. Perhaps some rethinking might be in order.