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Democracy or auction?

Chris Fitzsimon

Developer and prominent political fundraiser Lanny Wilson resigned from the State Board of Transportation Thursday, saying in a letter to Gov. Beverly Perdue that he wanted to “avoid any further unnecessary distractions” that would hurt Perdue’s efforts to reform the board.

Wilson was involved with a land deal on the coast that is part of a federal investigation into the activities of former-Gov. Mike Easley. Wilson also testified before the State Board of Elections in October about large contributions he made to the N.C. Democratic Party.

Wilson is a player in North Carolina politics. He and his wife have given at least $275,000 to candidates since 2000 and raised hundreds of thousands more. That’s why he is a player and how he ended up close to governors and a member of the Department of Transportation board.

Politicians need big money to run for office, and Wilson gives and raises it. Big money dominates campaigns and sews the seeds for much of the corruption that has contaminated our state government in recent years.

Polls show that people in North Carolina and across the country know that big special-interest money plays too prominent a role in our elections and has too much influence on the decisions of politicians when they are in office.

That’s what makes Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to allow corporations to spend unlimited money to elect or defeat candidates so disturbing. The flood-gates of huge special-interest money have been thrown open and threaten to wash away the chances of candidates who disagree with the corporate line.

An official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce told The Washington Post that the end of the ban on corporate money in elections “is a positive for the political process and free enterprise.”

The political process is not supposed to be like a market, where large companies swallow small ones, where firms with a bigger market share have more influence on an industry, where everything is determined by a stock price and a dividend.

Everybody is supposed to have the same voice in a democracy if they choose to use it. This ruling makes a mockery of that notion.

Ironically, the decision comes as the Obama administration is trying to tighten the regulations on the major players in the financial industry whose greed and mismanagement played a key role in the economic meltdown that is devastating millions of families.

The companies are resisting at every turn, of course, spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying members of Congress to keep the regulations weak while handing out billions in bonuses made possible by a taxpayers’ bailout.

Imagine what happens this fall, when the same companies can spend millions to elect candidates to stave off regulations that would reign in their greed and help prevent another financial collapse.

Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 told The Post that the ruling wipes out “a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy.”

Closer to home, Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina calls the decision another step toward turning public elections into private auctions. He’s right, and the starting bid and the sale price just went way up, and they were both already out of reach of most North Carolinians.

Democracy is supposed to belong to all of us, not just the highest bidder, not just Lanny Wilson or Bank of America or Goldman Sachs.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of N.C. Policy Watch.

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