Paying Yourself to Campaign

Posted January 15, 2003 at 6:20pm

Imagine this scenario: It’s late 2003. A conservative Democrat — say, for the sake of argument, Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — casts a vote that strongly displeases organized labor, even though he has been an ally in the past.

How does labor get payback? In the past, unions had to grit their teeth and bear the insult. Now they can find a progressive union member from the district — perhaps from Bemidji — to challenge Peterson in the 2004 Democratic primary.

And how does labor entice this lunch-bucket-carrying political neophyte to run against a seven-term Congressman? By reminding him that under new federal election rules, the candidate can pay himself a salary equivalent to that of a Member of Congress.

Far-fetched? Maybe. But not beyond the realm of possibility.

The AFL-CIO, which continues to try to flex its political muscle in a national political environment dominated by Republicans, has made no secret of its desire to elect 5,000 union members to federal, state and local political offices in the next few years. The latest figure is 2,600 officeholders and counting.

That goal is part of the reason why organized labor pushed so hard for the Federal Election Commission rule change late last year that paves the way for Congressional candidates to pay themselves salaries from the funds they raise. At the time, labor leaders argued that the new rule was a matter of fairness, that it helps to level the playing field and counters the corporate interests that finance so many conservative candidates.

“Congress is increasingly millionaires, and they have the Rolodex to get through the fund-raising they need,” said Kathy Roeder, a spokeswoman for the labor federation. “It’s tough to do that from the shop floor.”

Larry Gold, the AFL-CIO’s counsel who helped negotiate the language in the new FEC rule, said the electoral process is stacked against low- and middle-income challengers in two ways.

“The system for non-incumbents favors people with resources,” he said. “For incumbents, they’re paid to campaign by taxpayers.”

But just how the new rule is going to work as a practical and political matter is anybody’s guess. How many candidates will actually attempt to pay themselves? And how will the voters react?

In the past, candidates like Alan Keyes (R), who paid himself during his unsuccessful runs for the Senate from Maryland, and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who paid himself during an unsuccessful House bid in 1988, were hammered by the press and opponents for doing so.

But will interest groups like unions — or even political parties — use the pay-yourself rule as a recruiting tool, either to bolster their ranks or to bludgeon opponents?

“It has the ability to democratize, it has the ability to corrupt, it has the ability to help candidate recruitment,” said one Democratic operative, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

If the unions themselves are looking at the FEC rule as a way to threaten and/or punish uncooperative centrist and conservative Democrats in Congress, they aren’t tipping their hand. Both Gold and Larry Scanlon, the political director of AFSCME, another union generally aligned with the Democratic left, said their organizations had yet to strategize to such detail.

Karin Kullman, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Leadership Council, a group often at odds with unions in internecine party battles, said no one in her organization had considered the possibility that the unions could use the new rule to target centrist Democrats.

Scanlon predicted that the overall number of candidates for federal offices will increase thanks to the rule change. He cautioned, however, that the number of “serious candidates that the party is recruiting” with the enticement of a salary paid for by the campaign will be “marginal.”

“You may get 10, 20, 30 people run who really don’t have a chance of winning,” he said.

It’s possible that some people will decide to run for Congress on a lark and pay themselves in the process. But most experts note that even candidates who pay themselves will have to reach a fundraising threshold to have enough money for all campaign expenses — and to be considered viable.

“In order to raise money, you have to be a real candidate,” Gold said. “I think there’s a self-corrective here.”

One Democratic strategist with close ties to organized labor said the new rule will not only get more union members to run for Congress, but will also encourage advocates for the poor and single-issue candidates to seek public office. But the strategist said the unions would have an easier time reaching their goal of 5,000 union members in public office by recruiting candidates to run for city councils and state legislatures rather than for Congress.

Scanlon said organized labor views the new FEC rule as an important but small step in the ongoing battle for true campaign finance reform.

“It may affect the quantity of candidates marginally,” he said, “but it won’t affect the quality.”