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    Money in San Juan County elections: Have we lost our innocence yet?

    Reprinted from Straight Talk, November 24, 1998.

    Island Times reader Bruce King responds with dismay to our coverage of campaign finances in the recently-concluded election. He points to the lavish generosity of Deer Harbor consultant Alan Stanford, who donated a total of $14,000 to local races and the county GOP, including $6,500 to District Judge-elect Stewart Andrew.

    “Enough is enough,” King fumes in a letter to the editor. “What in the world could someone possibly think they have to gain, either by giving, or receiving, that kind of money in a San Juan County district court judge election? Alan Stanford should consider himself fleeced, and Stewart should be looked upon as not having any scruples. The time has come for campaign standards in this county. In the future, no candidate should be allowed to take more than $500 from any one person or group.”

    While researching campaign finance laws, I was surprised to discover that federal laws apply only to candidates for federal office and state laws apply only to candidates for state office. There are no limits on how much money local candidates can accept unless local laws are passed. None.

    King has a problem with that. So do I.

    Why would we want to burden ourselves with local campaign finance laws? Isn’t that just more of the kind of mainland stuff we can do without?

    Once, I would have thought so; now I’m not so sure.

    Certainly, the race for district court judge was an eye-opener. Just four years ago, long-time incumbent John Linde spent less that $5,000 to defeat a challenger who spent under $4,000. This year, Stewart Andrew spent nearly $40,000 to squeak past Ron Gordon, who spent nearly $30,000. That means Andrew spent about 12 bucks for every vote he got; Gordon spent a little over nine. And this for a non-partisan judgeship in teeny San Juan County? What the hell is going on here?

    Something was obviously at work in that race, something that, I’ll frankly admit, escapes me. Aside from the business about Andrew belonging to a conservative Christian church and Gordon being a practicing Buddhist, I don’t see why this race generated the intense interest — and the absurd amounts of cash — it did.

    Now, it’s quite possible that race was an anomaly. After all, about half of Andrew’s money came from just two contributors plus loans from his wife and a friend in California. About 80 percent of Gordon’s cash was loaned or contributed by friends and family.

    And it’s hard to see those spending levels as setting a floor from which future judgeship races will increase further. Nonetheless, seeing that much cash go into a campaign for a relatively low-profile position is alarming.

    But in other races, as well, donations and expenditures are on a sharp upward track. Rhea Miller raised just over $40,000 in contributions to keep her seat on the Board of County Commissioners. Her opponent Jack Giard brought in more than $36,000.

    Compare this to the last commissioner contest in 1996. Republican John Evans raised $27,200 to beat Bob Gamble, who took in $17,300. Also that year, Tom Starr and Darcie Nielsen broke the previous record by collecting nearly $30,000 each.

    In 1994, Miller spent less than $18,000 to beat George Lamb. That’s an increase of over 100 percent in four years.

    The amounts raised in the race for prosecuting attorney ballooned, as well, even though the race ended at the September primary. Randy Gaylord spent less than $10,000 to win his seat in 1994; he spent about $18,000 to keep it this year. Had Gaylord a Republican challenger in the November general election, we no doubt would have seen those numbers shoot up even further.

    Why should this be worrisome? A friend of mine, an Eastsound businessman, put it this way …

    “I’ve pretty well given up on national politics. I know I have absolutely zero influence on what happens in Congress or the White House. Even at the state level, my impact is minimal. But locally, I still feel that my vote and what I have to say have value. I can grab my county commissioner on the street and let him know what I think about local issues that I’ll feel a direct impact from. On a local level, it feels like democracy still works.”

    And I think that hits it right on the head. We know our congressman is owned by political action committees. And we know the governor is beholden to much bigger forces that any we can muster. But locally, ideas still count, our voices can still be heard; democracy still works.

    We’d all like to think our homespun local office-seekers wouldn’t succumb to the siren call of campaign cash. And, without question, what we’re going through is insignificant compared to what’s happening in larger places on the mainland.

    But it’s a simple, seemingly unavoidable equation that, as campaigns require more money, candidates become indebted to the folks who donate the big bucks. As Texas Senator Sam Rayburn once said, “You dance with them what brung you.”

    Rather than let things progress to that point, we might consider some prophylactic campaign finance regulations that would limit the influence money has on local elections.

    Right now, with the elections concluded and new ones almost two years off, would be the perfect time for the Board of County Commissioners to look into what measures are used in other counties to keep campaign spending under control. They’ll likely find that we’re the only county of its size contemplating such restrictions, but that would be pretty much par for the course, wouldn’t it? San Juan County is consistently out on the edge; witness our owner-builder law, our water recycling law, our Marine Resource Commission, etc.

    In recent years in this county, we’ve put great energy into jet ski bans and cell tower ordinances meant to solve small problems before they got big. I think preserving the human-scale civic life we enjoy in the San Juans is at least that important.

    How about you, Darcie, John and Rhea? What do you say?

    I’ll see you on the street.

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