My Life in Campaign Contributions

Tuesday, October 19, 2010 - 10:47 AM

Campaign finance reform. I have never given money to a political campaign as a single contributor. I have always contributed in response to specific issue or as a member of a specific institution. In the first case, I would agree that money constitutes a form of speech. 

I was paying to support an issue. It was my commentary on how much that meant to me, my contribution. It was an enhancement, if you will, to my stated opinion. In the seventies I worked for the AFLCIO as a union welder. During the 1974 political campaign (Nixon had resigned you’ll remember) I contributed through my union. Everything was voluntary according to my union buddies and I had no problem contributing but I knew that they knew whether and possibly how much I had contributed. I was just an 18-year-old, and it wasn't much money, but it was an interesting relationship. My political contribution was thrown in with that of every other union member and through our pooled cash kitty the union projected its national clout. This was not political speech. My money was kind of like the text for a bigger speech being delivered by a union which had its own agenda which certainly intersected with my political aspirations in some places but was also at odds in other places. For instance, take a look at the seniority rule in hiring and firing. This clearly did not favor me at all. Later that year I was laid off as one of the first in the first wave of layoffs from my company. I never returned and my union membership was hardly a measure of job security for me. If money was speech, it was an insult I was delivering to myself.

Much later in the corporate world it was a completely different approach. As an NBC News employee I was actually prohibited from contributing to campaigns or being seen at demonstrations. There were constant calls for “integrity” and avoiding conflicts of interest. GE, which owned NBC News, enforced these restrictions on citizen participation. NBC anchor Brian Williams used to brag about how he didn’t even vote as a way to show how objective and above it all he was. The company encouraged all of us to be a part the extensive stock purchase program in our 401Ks. You could travel everywhere in the world and TVs at GE subsidiary offices would have a little graphic in the bottom right hand corner of the screen telling the price of the GE shares. We were all stockholders in this company. We had a financial stake in its economic health at all levels. Yet, GE was a defense contractor which lobbied the same Pentagon that NBC News covered. GE was also a powerful lobbying force in the environmental movement among other things, fighting to avoid cleaning up the polluted Hudson River. GE had interests in the financial world, in health care both as a seller of medical products and as a huge employer of people needing health care. GE at one time produced cluster bombs when nations were drafting a treaty to ban landmines. I might have wanted the U.S. to sign that treaty (it still hasn’t) but my company would have been actively working to prevent that despite my interest as a citizen. I would have been prevented from even contributing to a candidate who supported it although I could vote for them. Here no money meant no speech. Why does my corporate citizenship trump my democratic citizenship?  I could vote for GE’s board of directors as a stockholder but not contribute to a candidate who favored or opposed GE’s agenda in any way.

My favorite moment was at an employee education retreat where it actually said I could not actively endorse in a story for NBC News that might contribute to an outcome I might have a stake in. Hmm ... I had just done a very successful series looking at the Americans with Disabilities Act for Dateline NBC. I asked the “team leader." Maybe I shouldn’t have done that story since as a man who uses a wheelchair I had a stake in the ADA being enforced. I had this conflict of interest by their definition.

The team leader smiled. He looked at his employee manual. He paused. I think, the next thing he said was simply. “Next question?”

Campaign finance reform ... good luck guys.

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