The Prism

Building a Movement for Campaign Finance Reform North Carolina

by Jay Stone

The cost of running for and winning public office in North Carolina has been rising steadily over the past two decades. While in 1976 winning legislators in the state's General Assembly spent about one million dollars, in 1994 winning legislators spent approximately $5.6 million. As campaign costs have escalated politicians have become increasingly reliant on a relatively small number of wealthy and generous contributors. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, between 1989 and 1992, about 27,000 North Carolinians -- less than 1% of the state's population -- gave $30 million in political contributions. Of the $30 million in political donations, $10 million was given by just 350 families and their business partners.

Some observers of North Carolina politics worry that as politicians become increasingly reliant on a handful of big contributors the democratic process will be hi-jacked and the public interest compromised. A three part series in the North Carolina Independent on the so-called "pollution lobby" lends credence to these concerns. In its investigative series the Independent found that, while environmental groups can only pay for two full-time lobbyists, corporations in such industries as textile, chemical, utilities, timber, and agribusiness are able to support dozens, paying them more than $1.4 million a year.

In addition, according to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, anti- environmental industries and their lawyers gave $1.8 million to current state legislators during the 1994 elections -- 54 percent of all identifiable campaign contributions. As a result of these contributions and high powered lobbying from the pollution lobby clean air standards in North Carolina have been weakened, water quality has been damaged as wetlands have been destroyed by developers, and the threat to citizens from unsafe hazardous toxic waste has increased.

The North Carolina Alliance for Democracy is a grassroots citizens' organization that is working to make campaign finance reform legislation a reality in this state. NCAD's strategy for the fall "96 elections consists of targeting specific legislative races and districts where it has a strong organization and it feels it can make an impact to make campaign finance reform a significant issue. As a part of this strategy, NCAD is doing outreach to its own member organizations as well as to non-member organizations to do education on the campaign finance reform issue and to solicit support for its district targeting campaign.

NCAD is also organizing petition and postcard drives in which citizens sign petitions and mail in specially designed "fat cat" postcards to let legislators know of their strong support for campaign finance reform. Once NCAD learns that political candidates have received at least 50 "fat cat" postcards its members schedule a meeting with the candidate to solicit their signature on a democracy pledge that pledges the candidate to work for serious and meaningful campaign finance reform if elected.

The most important development in NCAD's work recently has come in the form of a campaign finance reform bill crafted by state Senator Wib Gulley for introduction in the North Carolina General Assembly in January. Gulley's bill calls for strict limits on spending by all candidates who wish to qualify for public funding. To qualify candidates must demonstrate grassroots support by generating five dollar contributions from a specified number of contributors, agree not to accept or spend private money for his or her campaign, except for a small amount of seed money to be used for the qualifying process, agree to strict campaign spending limits designed to control the growth of campaign costs, and agree not to start their campaign activities until January of an election year.

NCAD held public hearings on Gulley's campaign finance reform bill in Durham, Asheville, Wilmington, and Charlotte during this past election season. In addition, it is organizing 3 to 5 mini-conferences and trainings across the state on campaign finance reform for environmental and other citizens' organizations as a way of training leaders who could then be speakers/organizers in their areas. The idea, according to chief NCAD organizer Pete MacDowell, is to "...further position NCAD as a valuable source of information for its members and fulfill its mission to disseminate the campaign finance related research being done by the Institute for Southern Studies." There are also plans in the works for letter writing campaigns geared to the editorial pages of newspapers and talk show appearances to get the campaign finance reform message out to the general public. Those interested in lending support for NCAD's efforts to reform campaign finance in North Carolina should contact Pete MacDowell at 967-9942.

Jay Stone is the Orange County Greens' delegate to the North Carolina Alliance for Democracy.

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