The Magazine


Feb 23, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 23 • By ALLISON R. HAYWARD and JAN WITOLD BARAN
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WASHINGTON IS OBSESSED with campaign fund-raising practices. In 1997, political elites spent considerable energy debating the legality of Al Gore's telephone fund-raising, while a Senate committee held televised hearings on White House coffee klatches.

Fueling the obsession is the fact that fund-raising is governed by literally thousands of pages of statutes, regulations, and rulings, which apply to every candidate for president and Congress. Three hundred officials at the Federal Election Commission supervise the process. And to most in Washington, "campaign-finance reform" means adding more of the same. Although Washington insiders depend on the freedom of speech for their livelihood, most object to unrestricted speech in the campaign context. The McCain- Feingold bill, notably, calls for new bans and regulations, and for a bigger and more powerful FEC to enforce the growing mountain of laws.

But in all of the debates over campaign reform, no one in Washington seems to have glanced across the Potomac to the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has just inaugurated a governor elected under a remarkable campaign-finance system as different as possible from those the reformers love.

According to the conventional wisdom, Virginia should be mired in corruption. America's 12th-largest state, after all, limits neither the size of contributions to its political candidates nor the amount spent by campaigns. It has no public funding of campaigns and permits corporations and unions (barred from contributing in federal elections) to make donations. Commonwealth law merely requires public disclosure of the money politicians raise and spend. Yet Virginia is not mired in corruption. Asked to identify a local scandal involving campaign finance, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato pauses, then replies, "I really cannot think of a major campaign-finance scandal."

So, how does a large, modern state escape endless pages of campaign-finance regulations -- and avoid campaign-finance scandals as well? Virginia relies on just two measures: disclosure and term limits. Disclosure is the linchpin.

Virginia's approach is consistent with the political philosophy of native son James Madison. Madisonian democracy accepts the reality of factions and allows for factions to be heard. Indeed, it encourages broad participation in politics so that no single faction can dominate. Legal restrictions, such as those governing federal campaigns, distort this competition. Their Rube Goldberg requirements and prohibitions spawn such phenomena as "independent expenditures," "soft money," and "issue ads," all of which complicate the flow of political money to its designated ends and make political support more difficult to trace.

In Virginia, because there are no contribution and spending limits, no such contrivances arise. Instead, "special interests" openly support their chosen candidates. (The only groups not allowed to contribute are judges, pari- mutuel betting licensees, and racing-commission members.) Contributors of over $ 100 are named publicly, in alphabetical order, with their occupation and employer listed. And reporting must be timely: within 72 hours, for contributions of over $ 1,000 for a statewide office or $ 500 for any other office received in the last 13 days of the campaign. With this information in hand if they want it, the voters make their choice -- and the winner takes office only if his contribution and expenditure reports are complete.

In Virginia, a candidate of modest personal wealth can raise the millions needed for a statewide campaign. The winner of the November '97 governor's race, Jim Gilmore, is the son of a butcher. He succeeded the son of a professional football coach (George Allen), who himself succeeded the grandson of slaves (Doug Wilder). Compare these governors with the incumbent U.S. senators, elected under the federal campaign laws. Chuck Robb and John Warner are men of means with glamorous personal backgrounds (Robb is married to President Johnson's daughter, and Warner was married to actress Elizabeth Taylor). Unlike the U.S. Senate, the Virginia State House is not increasingly populated by millionaires.