Herseth Taking Pay to Campaign

Posted April 20, 2004 at 6:52pm

Attorney Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) is paying herself $2,500 a month as she campaigns in the June 1 South Dakota House special election, the first candidate in a high-profile race to take advantage of a change in campaign finance regulations made in late 2002.

Under the restrictions written by the Federal Election Commission, a candidate for federal office can pay himself or herself up to the amount he or she was making in their last job or the yearly salary of a Member of Congress, whichever is lower.

The current Congressional salary is $158,100.

The $2,496.50 payments Herseth received from her campaign account in both February and March represent an annual salary of roughly $30,000.

“This law was created to reduce the financial commitment of running for office,” said Herseth spokesman Russ Levsen. “That’s why the FEC adopted this rule.”

While there is no question that what Herseth is doing is legal, the political implications of putting herself on the campaign payroll remain to be seen.

Republicans were quick to pick up on the issue Tuesday.

“This makes her a professional campaigner,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti, who added that none of the NRCC’s top-tier candidates have inquired about or were to his knowledge actively drawing a salary from their campaigns.

Danielle Holland, a spokeswoman for Herseth’s challenger, state Sen. Larry Diedrich, was less critical of Herseth, though she did note: “It is important that voters know if they are contributing to Stephanie where that money is going.”

Informed sources said that the NRCC was already testing the possible impact of the issue in polling conducted in recent days, but Forti would not confirm that.

Kori Bernards, Forti’s counterpart at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said she “assumed the NRCC will try and make this an issue,” adding that the GOP argument was a “weak point.”

“Stephanie Herseth is seeking to represent the people of South Dakota and seeking to define and defend herself against the millions the NRCC will put into this race,” said Bernards. “She also needs to pay her bills.”

Privately, some Democrats admit that the perception of Herseth paying herself hands Republicans an issue that is not worth the potential political costs, given the relatively small amount she is receiving.

The NRCC ran three weeks of television ads on Diedrich’s behalf earlier in the race but is not currently on the air.

The DCCC launched its first advertisement in the contest Tuesday with a radio spot touting Herseth’s plans for health care.

“Powerful insurance and drug companies rig the system to protect their profits,” says the ad’s narrator.

Herseth will “fight to give South Dakotans more power over their health care,” the narrator continues. “South Dakota seniors and families will never have to worry whose side she’s on.”

The DCCC has so far not run television ads backing Herseth, but she has been on the air since early March. She has run seven ads in the contest.

The race has drawn national attention ever since the resignation of freshman Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who stepped down Jan. 20 following a conviction on second-degree manslaughter for his involvement in an accident that left a motorcyclist dead.

Herseth had already indicated that she would run regardless of Janklow’s decision following a stronger-than-expected showing in 2002 against the former governor.

Herseth lost that race 53 percent to 46 percent despite raising better than $1.5 million.

She has again proven to be a strong fundraiser, bringing in $1 million from Jan. 1 to March 31. Diedrich raised $888,000 in that period.

Early polling showed Herseth with a 30-point lead over Diedrich, but a survey conducted in late March by Zogby International showed her with a more narrow 53 percent to 37 percent edge.

Both sides expect the race to tighten in the days leading up to June 1, given the state’s Republican tendencies.

Republicans are hoping Herseth’s salary will further the idea that she is not fully prepared to serve in Congress.

“Herseth has never held a job for longer than 14 months so you have a lack of experience, and on top of that you have someone who is paying themselves to campaign,” said Forti.

Levsen said that Herseth stepped down as executive director of the South Dakota Farmers Union Federation when she decided to run for Congress late last year and simply needed the money to stay afloat financially.

Prior to her 2002 Congressional bid, Herseth was an attorney in Washington, D.C.

“The new law’s intention was to make it possible for every American to run for Congress, not just millionaires,” Bernards said.

The FEC ruling, which came in November 2002, was approved 5-to-1 by the commissioners after heavy lobbying from organized labor.

Michael Toner, a Republican commissioner, also advocated for passage, explaining to the Los Angeles Times: “Why shouldn’t people of modest means be able to run for office, people like schoolteachers, blue-collar workers, other people who don’t have the ability to save hundreds of thousands of dollars and forgo their salaries and jobs while they run for office?”

In past cycles, the commissioners had deadlocked over whether candidates could draw a salary from their campaign accounts.

That didn’t stop candidates from paying themselves, however.

Alan Keyes paid himself during his Maryland Senate races, as did now-Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) during his unsuccessful 1988 House bid.

Both were lambasted by their opponents and the media for doing so.

Josh Kurtz contributed to this report.