The ongoing debate over New Jersey’s system of financing political campaigns has focused almost exclusively on bans and prohibitions, loopholes and regulations, limits and caps.
Largely overlooked has been what is arguably the more salient point: It requires money --- a great deal of money --- to mount a campaign for elected office in this state.
Gone are the days when someone decided to run for the Legislature, booked an evening at the American Legion hall, bought a round of beers for the audience, passed the hat and called it a success.
The candidate typed news releases at his kitchen table and set up coffee klatches, hoping those attending brought their checkbooks.
Today, multi-million dollar legislative campaigns are routine, spending on big city mayoral contests reach well into six figures, freeholder and local council races have attained levels unheard of a decade ago.
The money required to achieve viability and credibility is no longer in the coffee klatch crowd. Candidates spend as much time working the telephones to raise money as they do delivering speeches, knocking on doors, and sitting for media interviews.
Those clamoring for reforms in the system seem reluctant to address this aspect of campaigning, suggesting that money is inherently evil, corrupting the giver and the receiver.
Pay to play --- aside from its alliterative appeal --- has become shorthand for everything sinister and sordid in campaign finance.
Critics argue that those who contribute significant sums of money to a candidate or a political party are motivated by self-interest and fully anticipate something of value in return.
There is ample evidence to support their contention. New Jersey’s landscape is littered with no-bid contracts, professional services retainers, major development approvals, zoning changes, and hirings which can be traced in some measure to campaign contributions.
Despite contribution limits and more rigorous regulation and reporting requirements, money continues to pour into the system simply because the demand for it has thoroughly outstripped the ability of a candidate to secure it.
Because of the limits on contributions to individual candidates, uncapped donations to political action committees, PACs, have become the fund raising method of choice.
The PACs, all with noble sounding names, take in the cash and distribute it to candidates, all entirely permissible under existing law.
PACs are viewed cynically because they often are controlled by party leaders or close associates and, rather than promote the ideals their names suggest, are a subterfuge to avoid contributions limits.