More Candidates Reach Deep Into Own Pockets To Pay Election Costs


RON UNZ is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who helped build a successful small software company. Now the Harvard-educated physicist wants to run a $55-billion enterprise, the state of California.

He is seeking to wrest the GOP nomination for governor from incumbent Pete Wilson - and willing to spend at least $1 million of his own money trying.

Mr. Unz represents a growing trend in American politics: Candidates reaching deep into their own pockets to try to capture political office.

While personal fortunes have always played a part in campaigns, the number of candidates using large amounts of their own money has jumped in recent years.

Some argue the use of personal funds makes candidates less beholden to special interests. Others see a host of dangers - among them that the average person is being shut out of the political process.

``We are seeing the trend more and more,'' says Charles Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report, a Washington D.C. newsletter.

Federal Election Commission figures show that in 1993, leading up to this year's elections for the United States Senate, office-seekers chipped in $5.3 million of their own money in the form of personal donations or loans. That was up from $192,000 at the same time during the 1987-88 election cycle and $1.5 million in the 1989-90 period.

House candidates through 1993 had written personal checks worth $8.2 million - up from $3.2 million just two years ago.

Eugene Fontenot, a hospital owner from Texas, put up $850,000 this year to help win the Republican nomination for a House district in Houston. At least 11 House candidates have spent $100,000 or more of their own money on 1994 campaigns.

On the Senate side, Rep. Michael Huffington (R) of California plans to spend at least $5 million to try to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D). Just two years ago, Mr. Huffington, the son of a Texas oil magnate, put up $5.2 million of his own money.

``It is not inherently bad,'' Mr. Cook says. ``For those who haven't worked their way up through the political system, this may be the only way they can do it.''

``The campaign-finance system makes it rather useful,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. ``If you want to do it, you can spend as much as you like.''

The trend toward more personal spending is partly a function of the high cost of campaigning. In a television-dominated age, it is expensive to get a message out - especially for nonincumbents.

The declining influence of parties forces candidates to shoulder much of the fundraising and other burdens themselves. Even the media usually takes seriously only candidates with large campaign kitties, either self-financed or bankrolled by other contributors.

``There are 30 to 40 candidates running for governor in California,'' says Ruth Holton, executive director of California Common Cause. ``We only hear about the ones that have reached the $1-million mark.''

Ross Perot's ill-fated but highly visible 1992 presidential bid has shown a new generation what the deep pockets can buy. Mr. Cook cites another reason for the increase in well-heeled candidates: Many are successful business people or professionals who are fed up with the way the government is being run.

Mr. Unz is one of those with a political pique. A self-described Ronald Reagan Republican, he faults Governor Wilson for being a tax-and-spender ``out of the Republican mainstream.'' When no one from his own party would step up to challenge the governor, he decided to throw his hat - and part of his bank book - in.

``I believe very much in the ideas I believe in,'' says the long-shot first-time contender, who is running on a platform of smaller government, lower taxes, fewer regulations, and traditional moral values. ``I'm willing to spend some money to try to get them across.''

Others even portray hefty amounts of self-financing as a political plus. Mr. Huffington doesn't accept contributions from political action committees. He calls himself a ``political renegade'' free of special-interest influence.

Critics, though, decry a system where they say candidates have to ``buy political viability.'' Ellen Miller of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group, argues that to run for office today ``you either have to be wealthy or obligate yourself to wealthy interests.'' She says it squeezes out ordinary folk.

Others note that, though being financially well off may insulate candidates and officeholders from special interests, it can also make them immune to legitimate pressure from constituents.

Some also complain that rich candidates are often the most ideologically extreme. And there is concern about the government becoming a plutocracy. At least one-quarter of the members of the US Senate are now millionaires. The danger, critics say, is that such lawmakers will be be beholden to no one and defend their own class interests.

``If I'm wealthy, I'm with wealthy people,'' Dr. Berg says. ``I'm [operating] out of wealthy peoples' experiences.''

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