Herald-Leader Editorial

Being filthy rich shouldn't buy you a statewide office

February 20, 2014 

In two attempts at winning the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford put nearly $14 million of his personal wealth into his campaigns, $8.1 million in 2003 and $5.7 million in 2007.

In the 2007 Democratic primary, former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry also spent $1 million on his campaign.

In the Republican primary the same year, Paducah businessman Billy Harper spent $6 million of his own money while former U.S. Rep. Anne Northup put $700,000 into her campaign.

None of these candidates was successful, but former Govs. Wallace Wilkinson and Brereton Jones had better luck.

Wilkinson lent his campaign $1.3 million in the 1987 Democratic primary. The same year, Jones put nearly $1.8 million into his campaign for lieutenant governor. After winning election, Jones continued raising money to repay himself. He finally cleared the books in October 1992, almost a year after he was elected governor.

While Jones was governor, the General Assembly approved partial public financing of gubernatorial campaigns for candidates who agreed to limit spending to $600,000. At the same time, the state's limit on campaign contributions was lowered from $4,000 each election cycle to $1,000.

But public financing came into play only in the 1995 gubernator ial election. Former Democratic Gov. Paul Patton had token Republican opposition in his 1999 re-election campaign. And after Republicans took control of the state Senate in 2000, they started calling public financing "welfare for politicians" and eventually succeeded in getting the law repealed.

House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who was Lunsford's running mate in 2007, is proposing a new approach to countering a self-funded candidate's ability to buy statewide office.

When a gubernatorial candidate's self-funding level reaches $1 million in a primary or general election, legislation sponsored by Stumbo would raise the contribution limit for that candidate's opponents from $1,000 to $2,500. A $500,000 threshold of self-funding in races for other statewide constitutional offices would trigger the same increase in contribution limits.

Since opponents of self-funded candidates still would be responsible for all of their own fund-raising from private donors and political action committees, just with higher contribution limits, this can hardly be criticized as "welfare for politicians."

Instead, it seems a sensible way to avoid what Stumbo calls the risk of making independent wealth "an unofficial qualification for statewide office."

He acknowledges he's wealthy enough to meet that qualification if he should choose to run for statewide office again. The fact that others aren't shouldn't disqualify them from having a chance at winning one of these offices.

House Bill 366 could help level the playing field a bit for them. The House and Senate should give serious consideration to passing it.

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