Bay State needs to limit how much candidates spend on own campaigns

Buying a public office - or even attempting to do so - is illegal. Yet that is what more than a few political candidates are doing, in effect, when they pour large sums of their own money into campaigns to win or retain an elective seat.

Office-seekers' practice of investing large amounts of their own money in electoral pursuits is neither new nor confined to political aspirants from a particular party. It's all perfectly legal, no matter how much money is involved , so long as the funds are used for legitimate campaign purposes.

Two years ago, for example, industrialist Lewis Lehrman, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New York, shelled out $7 million to his own campaign coffers. In 1980 Democratic Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia contributed $11.6 million to his successful pursuit of a second four-year term.

Similar instances of self-generosity have not eluded Massachusetts politics, although the amounts involved have been smaller. In the 1982 campaign for United States Senate, for example, Raymond Shamie, Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, reached into his own wallet for $1.5 million to fuel his electoral efforts in what proved to be a losing cause.

The Walpole industrialist, then a political newcomer, presumably is prepared to spend as much of his own cash in his current quest for the US Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Paul E. Tsongas. Much depends on whether he wins the GOP nomination in the September primary - a contest that is shaping up to be costly and fiercely fought.

Elliot L. Richardson, his chief Republican challenger and former federal Cabinet official, is generally viewed within Bay State political circles as the front-runner. Last month's statewide voter preference sampling, by the highly respected Becker Institute, showed Mr. Richardson besting Mr. Shamie by 46 percent to 32 percent with 4 percent for Dr. Mildred Jefferson and the remaining 18 percent undecided.

So far, much of the Republican campaign has been dominated by the candidate-financing issue. Shamie, following the lead of several of the Democratic contenders for the Tsongas seat, announced that he would not accept funds from political action committees (PACs) and criticized Richardson for his original position that such support, when offered, would be accepted or rejected on a case-by-case basis.

Richardson later shifted his stance and said that he, too, would not take financial help from any PAC. At the same time, he called on Shamie to agree to put a $25,000 limit on the amount each would spend out of pocket in the campaign.

The move, about as subtle as a slammed door in a peddler's face, was not welcomed by the wealthy industrialist. More significantly, it put Shamie in an awkward position: having to decline to go along with such a restriction, or running a low-budget campaign that relies heavily on contributions from other sources.

His rejection of the proposal came as no surprise to anyone, especially Richardson. Richardson, a Yankee brahmin, although perhaps comfortable financially, is not a millionaire. He almost surely will frequently raise the question of whether his GOP rival should be kicking in large sums to help bankroll his electoral efforts.

Richardson has served as US undersecretary of state; ambassador to Great Britain; secretary of defense; secretary of health, education, and welfare; secretary of commerce, US attorney general, and, more recently, ambassador to the Law of the Sea Conference. Earlier in his long public-service career, it may be recalled, he was lieutenant governor and attorney general here in the commonwealth. This experience, if translated into modest individual campaign contributions, could be very helpful to the Richardson fund raising.

Shamie, although unsuccessful in his try at toppling Senator Kennedy, gained political exposure in the process. To his credit, he brought imagination and humor to what could have been a free ride for Kennedy.

If Senator Tsongas had decided to seek reelection, Richardson (a moderate Republican) would not have run. Thus, Shamie (a conservative), who announced his candidacy long before Tsongas's retirement decision in mid-January, almost certainly could have counted on his party's nomination. More important, all of his campaign money, including whatever he might donate to himself, could have been saved for taking on the Democratic opposition in November.

Under federal law, there is no ceiling on how much US Senate or US House candidates, incumbent or not, can donate to their campaigns.

In Massachusetts, too, there is no limit on self-funding by a candidate. It's possible for a wealthy office-seeker to plow a small fortune into a heavy media campaign, out-spending the opposition several fold.

A special commission, which probed Massachusetts political corruption of the 1960s and early '70s, recognized that personal self-financing is, at best, a questionable practice.

In its 1981 report, the panel recommended a $50,000 lid on the money gubernatorial candidates could donate to their own campaigns. It also suggested a maximum of $25,000 for those bent on other statewide offices.

Massachusetts lawmakers, however, have not evinced much enthusiasm for this proposal. Could it be the legislature is not concerned about the possibility of a political aspirant practically buying an elective office through a self-financed advertising campaign? Even if a campaign financed this way includes the use of money laundered through the candidate's personal bank account?

As Common Cause and others have warned, there are too many loopholes for potential election-law abuse. Letting candidates spend as much of their money as they want could be one of the bigger ones.

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