We have a corruption problem in Annapolis. I’ll say that again: we have a corruption problem in Annapolis.
I’m not talking about the Nat Oakses and Michael Vaughns of the world, who break the law and pocket cash bribes; I’m talking about a much deeper, systemic corruption that runs to the core of our political system. I’m not talking about the corruption of evil men exchanging briefcases full of cash in an underground parking garage. I’m talking about a corruption that ensnares good men and women who enter public service with the noble goals of leaving the world a better place than they found it.
I’m talking about our campaign finance system that is fueled by corporate and lobbyist dollars.
When our nation’s founders crafted the constitution, crafted our republic, they knew from the example of Rome – the principal example of a republic before ours – that corruption was a major flaw in this system of government. And, they saw the potential for it in our own.
When Benjamin Franklin returned home from nine years as the ambassador to France, Louis XIV, gave him an extravagant gift, as was the custom for departing ambassadors at the time. He gave him a golden snuff box that featured a small portrait of the Sun King, encrusted with over four hundred diamonds. The gift caused such a stir about the French crown’s influence on leading statesmen that it led to the emoluments clause in our constitution, which states: “No Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”
They wisely included this clause because they sought to create a government that was responsive to the people, and only the people. Any deviation from that purpose is, by definition, a corruption.
They included it because people get used to a certain lifestyle, and when that lifestyle becomes dependent on someone or something else, such as a foreign government providing you with gifts, jobs, or honorifics, it’s natural that one will avoid actions that might displease those benefactors.
While we have some measure of protection from the favor of foreign kings, our founders could not have envisioned the sort of national and global businesses that would emerge a century later. Progressives at the turn of the 20th century saw the corrupting threat that they would pose, and so in 1907, they passed the Tillman Act, which bans corporations and unions from making direct political contributions to federal candidates and officeholders. Our federal system is not perfect and is rife with corruption as well, but it is at least set up so that our representatives cannot be directly on the payroll of some of the wealthiest and most powerful interests in the world.
Unfortunately, in Maryland, we are still living in the 19th century in this sense, and corporations are free to spend unlimited amounts of money – $6000 at a time – on our candidates. It has resulted in a situation where the chair of most committees here in Annapolis take significant amounts of campaign contributions from the very businesses and interests that they are responsible for regulating for the good of the people of Maryland.
We have a situation now where the Maryland Senator who is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee took over $78,000 in contributions from the Bail Bonds industry in just the 2014 election cycle. The senate chair of the Gaming Oversight Committee has taken over $30,000 from the gambling industry. The chair of the House Health Appropriations Subcommittee has received nearly one in three career political dollars from the health industry. The chair of the House Economic Matters Committee, which basically oversees all manner of business in this state, has taken over $97,000 from the alcohol industry, over $94,000 from electric utilities, over $60,000 from real estate interests, over $57,000 from the insurance industry, over $54,000 from oil and gas interests… it goes on and on and on. These committee chairs wield tremendous influence by determining the committees’ agendas, with a veto power that rivals the governor’s, and with the ability to bury any piece of legislation that comes before the committee.
As I said before, these are mostly good people. But they like being delegates and senators. It does not pay great, but you get the opportunity to serve the community and stand up in the most impactful way possible for the things that you believe. You get fancy dinners and cocktail parties at Lewnes Steakhouse, Ruth’s Chris, and all of Annapolis’s finest establishments, put on by lobbyists and special interests. You get a cool, special license plate for your car.
But to live this life, you’ve got to win your election; and to win your election, you need money, often lots and lots of it. So you work the system as it is, you donate to the Senate President or Speaker’s leadership PAC, those leaders then appoint you to chair committees, where you have this tremendous power, and every special interest in the state wanting a good relationship with you, and offering you campaign contributions. And now you rely on those contributions and those special interests to sustain your noble lifestyle of serving the people. Therefore, even if it is subconsciously, you are going to avoid offending your donors.
So let me be clear to Maryland’s esteemed General Assembly: I don’t question your motives. I don’t question your morals. I question your judgment.
Now there is hope on the horizon. I know for a fact that there are representatives here who see this problem and who will not play the game. This year, as he has done several times, Delegate David Moon of Montgomery County introduced a bill that would ban direct, corporate campaign contributions. Only two of his colleagues had the courage to stand with him as co-sponsors: Shane Robinson, who I am proud is one of my own representatives, and Jimmy Tarlau, of Prince George’s County.
Unfortunately, hat bill died in the Ways and Means Committee. It received a hearing but was then placed in a drawer, as are so many worthy bills that would benefit the people of Maryland. The matter was closed without the committee ever taking a vote that could move it forward.
I am committed to that fight to exorcise one of the biggest forms of corruption in our government, and I will be here waging it for years to come, whether I win my election and stand proudly as a co-sponsor of such a bill, or if I am here as a private citizen advocating for the people to take back their government. That is why it is so important that each and every one of you is here, because this cause can only be won with a groundswell from the people demanding an end to this corruption, and posing a clear electoral threat to those representatives who refuse to let go of politics as usual.
Bobby Bartlett is a volunteer with Represent Maryland and a candidate for Delegate in Montgomery County’s District 39.
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