Modern Democracy All About Dollars

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 05, 2010

Ballots will go out to registered voters this week for the special election in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District. Listed on the ballot will be the names of 14 candidates - chief among them former 2nd District Rep. Ed Case, City Councilman Charles Djou and Senate President Colleen Hanabusa.

What distinguishes Case, Djou and Hanabusa from the other 11 candidates? Experience in public office, for starters. But more important, each has the ability to raise and spend sufficient funds to put their names, faces and 30-second claims on television repeatedly.

How much money does it take for this short, special election season? A lot. Hanabusa raised $459,000 and spent $349,000 in the first three months of 2010. Djou raised $298,000 in the same period and spent $132,000. Case brought in $157,000, spent $102,000.

It’s all part of American democracy - the democracy of dollars, that is. And Hawaii’s three 1st District congressional races this year - the special, the Democratic party primary between Case and Hanabusa, and the general between one of them and Djou - could well set a record for money spent to contest a congressional seat in one campaign year.


But that’s just the 1st District congressional. Three high-profile congressional candidates have been begging for bucks for months now, but have yet to start spending them with the abandon of the 1st District congressional aspirants.

By the beginning of campaign year 2010, former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie had $1.3 million in his wallet, Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona $2.2 million and Mayor Mufi Hannemann $2.3 million.

All three have held major fundraising events since the first of the year, and they’re neither done raisin’ nor have they begun to spend.

That’s not all. Seven candidates are currently vying for lieutenant governor. All are holding fundraisers. “Suggested donation, $50,” writes one. “Suggested donation, $25,” writes another. “Suggested donation, $100,” writes a third. The prose doesn’t change, just the dollar amount. After all, how does a candidate get creative about begging?

We’re still not done. The moment Hannemann files his papers for governor, a plague of mayoral candidates - city prosecutor Peter Carlisle, city managing director Kirk Caldwell, City Councilman Donovan Dela Cruz and professor Panos Prevadoros, to name just a few - will hit the dunning trail more energetically than they already have.

All of the federal supplicants may be aided in their quest for democracy’s dollars by the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. By a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservative majority held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited under the First Amendment.

What does that mean? That a corporation or a union may spend as much of they wish on a video, advertisement or candidate endorsement. As much as they wish.

What they still can’t do is make direct contributions to candidate campaigns or political parties.

The history taught in our schools since the birth of the republic has held that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States - the Bill of Rights - were adopted in order to allay the fears of the founding generation that this new federal experiment would turn into a tyranny.

For many of the Founding Fathers, the First Amendment did more to quiet their fears than all the others combined. It read: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridge the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

“Free speech,” they argued, would guarantee the flow of ideas and opinions.

But what happens when “free speech,” perverted by a Supreme Court majority of conservative ideologues, means allowing corporations to spend as much as they want to attack or support a candidate or idea?

It’s worse than dollar democracy.

It’s plutocracy and it’s not what the Founders had in mind when they enshrined “free speech” in the Constitution.

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