Sunday, July 25, 2004

Shumate: Lack of dollars at root of problem

By Gregory S. Shumate
Guest columnist

"Show me the money!"
from the movie "Jerry McGuire"

I was once on a recruiting mission desperately trying to convince someone who had just retired to run for a county office. He had been with a local utility company for 30 years, and he was reluctant. I preached about the virtues of public service, and provided my typical warnings about campaign demands, its effect on the candidate's family and friends, and the need to have a "thick skin."

After my presentation, I asked if he had any questions. Without blinking, he simply asked, "If I run, how much money should I expect from you?"

It's been said that money is the root of all evil. It's also been said that not enough quality candidates run for public office. If the lack of quality candidates for public office can be considered an "evil," then certainly money can be considered one root cause of the "evil."

It's no secret that campaign financing and spending reaches new all-time highs every year. The public debate over campaign finance reform, most recently fueled by the debate over the McCain-Feingold law and Sen. Mitch McConnell's subsequent litigation, has raised public awareness of the skyrocketing costs of funding a campaign. (By the way, I happen to agree with McConnell's position on campaign finance reform.)

Given the high price of participating in the political game, it is no wonder that it has become increasingly difficult to find quality candidates to run for public office. Most people find it difficult (and some say impossible) to ask their friends and family for money. It is also very rare to find someone who is willing to self-finance a campaign (or capable of it).

For a person who is considering a run for public office for the first time, the prospect of raising money in any amount seems daunting. When the potential first-time candidate factors in the other inherent difficulties in running for office for the first time, particularly against a well-known and well-financed incumbent, it seems almost sadistic to try such a thing.

Personal finances play a factor as well. Being a candidate for virtually any office is essentially a full-time job (particularly during the election season). It is very difficult for a candidate to run a highly competitive, successful campaign while maintaining the demands of his or her everyday job.

After the election, hopefully there's a new issue: "Now that I've got the job, what will I do with it?" For many, taking an elected position means also taking a considerable pay cut. This is the same problem that occurs when recruiting good teachers, police officers, firefighters and other historically underpaid positions.

There are other difficulties in running for public office, to be sure. These include the likelihood of facing a negative campaign (which is a subject worthy of its own column), the ever-moving target in legislative districts caused by redistricting, and historical voting trends in any given district that seemingly favor one political party over another.

However, the solutions to most of these issues center around raising enough money to run a well-financed campaign. For example, if the issue is lack of candidate name recognition (which is often the problem with first-time candidates), then the solution is to raise enough money to pay for television, radio and other media advertising.

I have often said that the best political candidate is someone who does not need the job. Unfortunately, there are not many who fit that description.


Northern Kentucky attorney Gregory S. Shumate is chairman of the Kenton County Republican Party.

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