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Follow the money

Bob Berwyn

Money may not buy happiness, but it buys TV time, travel money and office space. These are the things that make the difference between winning and losing for Colorado’s political candidates.The Open Secrets Website keeps track of who is contributing to our representatives in Washington, painting an interesting picture of political influence.Congressman Scott McInnis, for example, the Grand Junction Republican who represented Eagle and Summit counties in Washington for 10 years, has styled himself as the representative of the little guy on Colorado’s West Slope, but a close look at his campaign finances shows that McInnis gets the majority of his campaign contributions at least in the hard money category from the Denver area.McInnis no longer represents the resort communities of Eagle and Summit counties, which are now in a new district represented by Boulder Democrat Mark Udall.The Open Secrets site reveals that McInnis collected $159,820 in the Denver area, but only $18,100 in Grand Junction. Another $13,250 originated in the Washington, D.C. area. Those figures are for the 2001-02 House election cycle and based on Federal Election Commission data released electronically on Dec. 2. (The Open Secrets Website is compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.) For the most recent election cycle, Open Secrets shows that McInnis collected $787,085, and spent $522,007. His cash on hand is reported at $1,498,919.Following the trail of political dollars may seem like a futile exercise in bean counting, but many experts who follow campaign finance issues closely say it’s the key to understanding how and why our elected politicians make the decisions they do.In taking a quick look at campaign contributions for McInnis and Udall, The Vail Trail and the Summit Independent recently conducted an e-mail interview with Denver-based Nancy Watzman, a researcher and writer with Public Campaign, a national, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working for comprehensive campaign finance reform.”It really is true that, if you follow the money, you get to the heart of the story; to why politicians make the decisions they do,” says Watzman. “We advocate for clean money and clean elections systems, which would provide public financing to candidates who meet certain requirements – for example, gathering a large number of $5 contributions from within the district where the candidate is running – and limits on campaign spending,” Watzman says. “Public financing saves taxpayer money and saves public officials from the money chase. It’s already the law in Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Vermont, with more states on the way.”The Open Secrets Website also breaks down campaign contributions according to industry sectors, and even to Political Action Committees associated with specific companies. The lion’s share of McInnis contributions about $163,000 during the 2002-2002 election cycle – came from the finance, insurance and real estate sectors. Communications and electronics kicked in about $41,000, while the agriculture sector came up with $38,000. Energy and natural resources interests contributed about $65,000.Breaking down the list to look at top contributors, the Open Secrets Website shows the National Association of Realtors as the single largest source of contributions, at $10,000.It’s important to understand that these organizations themselves did not directly donate; rather the money comes from an organization’s Political Action Committee (PAC), its individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals’ immediate families. Organization totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.Second on the list of individual contributors is Gallagher Enterprise, at $8,000, then the Land Title Guarantee Company at $7,550, on down to Adolph Coors at $5,000 and even the Walt Disney Company, at $4,000. Several oil and mining companies are also listed at $4,000, as is the Paragon Ranch.”It’s an open secret in Washington and in state capitals across the country that money buys access to politicians, and that the policies that result favor campaign contributors over ordinary people,” says Watzman. “We all pay in the form of dirtier air, contaminated food, lack of health insurance coverage, and on and on. But until people take notice and say they don’t want the democracy to run that way, and set up an alternative way for people to run for office, candidates will be beholden to their special interest contributors,” she says.”Scott McInnis raises his money from industries with a strong interest in weakening environmental protection laws, and he’s been more than willing to do what they want,” Watzman says. “In his last election, he (McInnis) raised $48,520 from real estate interests, $26,000 from oil & gas companies, and $12,500 from the mining industry, among others. He also took a large chunk of money, $145,570, from the financial sector – banks, insurance companies, and securities firms, which makes sense since he sits on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which is where a lot of the nitty-gritty decisions about taxation get made,” Watzman says.Mark Udall, the Boulder Democrat who represents Eagle and Summit counties as part of his new court-drawn district, collected $1,140,737 during the 2001-02 election cycle substantially more than McInnis. The bulk of Udall’s contributions also came from the Front Range Denver, to be exact, with $127,553. Another $100,000 originated in the Boulder area, with about $29,000 coming from the Washington, D.C. region and $23,000 out of San Francisco.Open Secrets shows that Udall garnered plenty of financial support to the tune of $67,750 from lawyers and law firms. Retirees kicked in $53,000, while various trade unions anted up anywhere from $53,500 (industrial unions) to $27,000 from public sector unions. Environmental groups also contributed about $26,000.The single biggest source of contributions was the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, at $15,000. Various unions and trade associations area also atop the list, with contributions ranging from $6,000 to $12,000.The National Association of Realtors (again, it’s important to remember that these contributions are funneled through PACs) also contributed $9,000, only $1,000 less than it gave to McInnis. The Denver law firm of Brownstein, Hyatt and Farber also was a big donor, at $10,750, trailed closely by the Trial Lawyers Association, the source for $10,000 in campaign cash for Udall.”Mark Udall gets most of his campaign cash from labor unions (61 percent), which is pretty typical for a Democrat,” Watzman says. “Even though he sits on the House Resources Committee, where a lot of environmental policy gets made, the polluting industries aren’t giving him very much money at all, probably because he’s been a champion for stronger environmental protection laws” she speculates.Watzman says the recently passed McCain-Feingold campaign finance law passed last year bans “soft money” contributions, those unlimited contributions from special interests that had grown exponentially in recent years.”But soft money is just part of the campaign finance story. Even with the growth of soft money, ‘hard money,’ the contributions that people give to candidates and parties, which is subject to limits, makes up the bulk of campaign money contributed,” she concludes.


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