March 19, 1999 (Ira Pilgrim)

Money and Politics

An honest politician is one who when he is bought will stay bought.

Simon Cameron(1799-1886)

I remember a Democratic Party primary that saw five people vying for the Democratic nomination for governor. One of the five was Jerry Brown, who got the nomination and won the subsequent election. I was particularly interested in that election because Jerry Waldie was one of the candidates.

Jerry Waldie and I went to the University of California in Berkeley at the same time, after World War II. We lived in the same Veteran's Village and used to swap baby sits. Waldie is a sharp politician and he could have represented his congressional district for as long as he wanted to; but he opted to relinquish his seat in order to try try for the governorship. I consider him a friend and thought that he would have been a fine governor. I campaigned for him.

After the primaries were over, the Contra Costa Times published the list of candidates and how much money they spent in the primary. It was a revelation to me. The person who spent the most (Jerry Brown) got the most votes. It was a one to one correspondence: the person who spent the second largest amount of money came in second; and so on down the line to Waldie who spent the least and came in last. I thought that Waldie's speeches were better than Brown's and that he had better qualifications. He just didn't have the financial support.

I remember a time in the early 70's when Jimmy Hoffa, the supposedly mob-connected head of the Teamster's Union, was on the Dinah Shore show. He bragged that he could get anyone elected to office if he could spend enough money. Dinah was visibly embarrassed at this flagrant disregard of everyone's belief, that, in a democracy, the best man will win. Hoffa's hubris may have been too much for the mob and several weeks later he disappeared. To this day, no one knows what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.

While it is true that there are a few people who can get elected with minimal financial backing and a few people who couldn't be elected dog catcher without spending a fortune; by and large anyone can be elected to office if enough money is spent; particularly if the candidate himself is willing to go into hiding until after the election and leave it to his campaign staff and the advertising experts.

People with big money are reluctant to waste it on an unpopular candidate, so they try to run people who can win without spending a fortune, consistent with the candidate being willing to do as he's told.

It is also much cheaper to find an incumbent who sees things the same way that you do, and then spend just enough money to keep him in office. Rich people love a bargain just the same as anyone else.

It's prohibitively expensive to get someone elected who most people know is a complete jackass. It helps if a candidate hasn't made too many enemies. In short, it should be someone who is generally pleasant and keeps his mouth shut. It's great if he has lots of friends, but it is much more important that he not have too many enemies. A wise man once told me that ten friends are not worth one enemy.

Much of small town politics has to do with friendships, although I must admit that I have some friends in our town to whom I would lend money, and even tools, but wouldn't vote for them for the school board. They are people I like, but think would be complete misfits as members of the board. I wouldn't vote for Ira Pilgrim for the Laytonville school board. There are some people who would agree with that, who wouldn't agree with me on anything else.

If a candidate is personable and he can talk to all of his constituents, it may be possible to win on his own; provided the electorate is small enough to make that possible. If not, he must have money.

One of the things that make it possible to buy an election is the fact that many people believe that "everyone should vote". It is this attitude that often makes name recognition more important than competence and makes buying an election possible.

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