Thursday, August 09, 2007

Five Questions with Mick Mulvaney

As you know, I've blogged a lot this summer about what I feel is the exploitation of SC's campaign finance laws in an effort to build a legislature that will support Howard Rich's private-school voucher bill, sometimes referred to as "Put Parents in Charge."

I've mentioned sitting legislators elected with a flood of out-of-state funding from the voucher lobby -- like Reps. Curtis Brantley (at least 86%) and Kit Spires (over 52%).

I've highlighted would-be legislators whose campaigns were almost entirely funded from out-of-state supporters of PPIC -- like Michael Letts (96%), Brad Cain (99.2%) and Roz Mir (99.8%). And of course, I've uncovered evidence that perhaps some of these folks don't actually know their names are being used as contributors to SC races, and that maybe this money doesn't really come from individual checks after all.

All this blogging was based on some underlying assumptions: that SC political races shouldn't be unduly influenced by massive amounts of out-of-state special interest money, that one person shouldn't be able to game the system because he happens to control more LLC's than the average Sandlapper, and that campaign contribution limits are meaningless if they don't really limit anything.

But what if these underlying assumptions are wrong?

It honestly never occurred to me that this sort of funding is the way its supposed to work, or that some people may see no problem whatsoever with this brand of politics. It's an opinion I don't share, but it's a valid opinion nonetheless, and deserves some space on this page -- along with some good humor, a solid tip on a SC 'cue joint, and some thoughts on the blogosphere.

So without further ado, Barbecue & Politics presents...

Five Questions with Rep. Mick Mulvaney

1. Let’s get right to the point, Rep. Mulvaney: Your election to the State House has meant many lunches in the Mustard Belt. Obviously, this fact more than compensates for the meager salary of a legislator. Where back home, in the Tomato Belt, do you go to get your ‘cue on?

My only regular intake of BBQ these days is the 521 Barbecue. It’s on, not surprisingly, Highway 521 in Lancaster County near Sun City. Good stuff, with free refills on the Cherry Coke, which is a characteristic trait of all great BBQ joints. They also cater a mean campaign event at about half the going rate.

2. (a) With which legislator have you worked the most during the last session?

I worked a great deal with Jim Merrill and was surprised to find out about halfway through the session that he was the majority leader, and not the dead poet. Go figure. I also worked with both Bill Herbkersman and Herb Kirsh, and can confirm that they are in fact different people.

(b) Have you made any unlikely alliances in the State House?

I teamed up with Don Bowen this year for a sort of vaudeville thing. I juggle flaming torches while he reads Shakespearean tragedies dressed as Hamlet. He looks good in the tights, but we probably aren’t ready for prime time. We might try some weddings and bar mitzvahs this off-season, though.

3. Okay, enough softballs. As I noted before on this blog, your campaign in 2006 received a $9,000 “shot in the arm” from New York voucher advocate Howard Rich, through his many LLC’s. Do you think this sort of contributing/fund-raising meets the legislative intent of our state’s contribution limits?

Two thoughts before I get to the meat of your question:

One: your question makes an assumption: that all of those LLC’s are Howard Rich --- and only Howard Rich. They may have similar addresses and other legal formalities, but there is a long way between those factors and a true alter ego. I am involved in several companies, many of which have the same address, although with different owners, officers, and directors. So be careful about jumping to conclusions.

Two: one of the greatest things about living in this country is that --- ideally --- we aren’t supposed to have to worry about legislative “intent.” In a society governed by written law, the law is what the law is. People should be able to read our laws and know what is permitted and what is proscribed, without having to delve into the netherworld of intangibles. Frankly, I find that people start to focus on “intent” when they don’t like what the law says on its face. Intent rightly becomes an issue when the law lacks clarity…not when you just disagree with it. For the times that legislative intent is validly at issue, we have a court system to perform its proper function.

That said, I have no problem answering your question: absolutely this sort of financing meets the intent.

The easy answer is to say “no,” as I assume folks believe that the “intent” of the law must be to limit the ability of certain groups to contribute to campaigns. They may think that there is some loophole someplace (probably discovered by devious trial lawyers) that politicians are “taken advantage of” with this kind of financing.

That is simply not the case. There is no loophole. It is a cavernous void, so obvious that the only reasonable assumption can be that the Legislature – and I wasn’t a legislator then – did not intend to limit this kind of financing. Indeed, if limiting multiple corporate donations was in fact the intent, it is hard to imagine a law that does a worse job of articulating that.

The definitions in the law make it painfully clear that separate companies, including LLC’s, are treated as separate entities, just as members of one family --- spouses, emancipated children, etc. --- are treated as separate individuals. Clearly, the folks who wrote that law knew full well what would happen: money would come from children, corporate subsidiaries, and multiple LLCs. It’s hard, given the express language, to argue anything else. The Legislature went so far as to distinguish between contributions from emancipated and unemancipated children. Clearly, it could have done the same on related corporate entities. Similarly, many states prohibit contributions from corporations entirely. Our legislators chose not to apply that bright-line rule. I can only assume – and I think reasonably – that they did (or did not do) those things on purpose.

Before anyone decries that position as being overly legalistic, consider an analogous “reform”: the rule changes on lobbying. There, the law is so detailed that the law is actually referred to as the “No Cup of Coffee” law. There is no need to delve into intent, and if there was, that intent would be manifestly clear. Put another way, if the Legislature had wanted campaign finance “reform” to equate to the “$1000 From Any Source” law, they had not only the ability to do so, but also had a ready model available to them.

And I am glad they didn’t as I am not particularly fond of so-called campaign reform laws. Indeed, I think financial limitations are an affront to free speech and create unfair disadvantages for candidates with less personal wealth. In my own race, for example, my opponent was apparently not in a position to provide significant funds to his campaign. However, that his wealthy next door neighbor --- who might have shared his same political philosophy (as misguided as it was) – couldn’t give him $5000 or $10,000 or $100,000 just stuns me. If his neighbor wants to see liberalism prevail, it is a travesty to prevent him from seeking to do so. Look at it this way: if the rich neighbor ran for office himself, he could contribute $2,000,000; if he didn’t, he could contribute $1000. Something is terribly wrong with that dichotomy. Campaign finance “reform” has moved us one step closer to a system where only super-rich candidates are viable --- and that smacks of an aristocracy.

I feel so strongly about the evils of campaign finance limitations, by the way, that I actually sent back one campaign contribution last year: $1000 from John McCain. I had just finished writing a critique of McCain-Feingold when the check came in. Here was a man who, on one hand, was saying that the Bill of Rights was a secondary priority, and that “money corrupts” --- and on the other hand was sending me money. I am not easily offended. That offended me.

Campaign finance reform should be renamed the “Incumbent Protection Act.” That is the only thing it accomplishes. Along with gerrymandered districts, it represents one of the most serious long-term threats to our republican system of government.

Come to think of it, it strikes me that protecting incumbents – and not limiting multiple contributions — may well have been the true intent of the campaign finance reform movement. It makes more sense, at a lot of levels.

4. Whose responsibility is it, if anyone’s, to ensure compliance with state election laws? Candidates? Consultants? Ethics Commission? Bloggers?

I haven’t looked as closely at this issue, but I would think it is fairly self-evident: the candidates are always responsible for their own actions; the ethics commissions (including those in the House and Senate) are responsible for enforcement. Beyond that, consultants are probably just responsible to give good advice to their clients, especially when it comes to the bizarre and often counter-intuitive reporting processes. Bloggers play the same role as other media.

5. New media. South Carolina Politics. What are the possibilities?

Endless. But right now it is its own worst enemy. Too often the new media seems to start off with great promise, only to devolve into anonymous defamation. That is especially true of the comments on blogs. The bloggers themselves are often serious about their work – although they obviously vary in style (which is part of what makes the medium so attractive.) But it seems that good investigative work is often overshadowed by banal chatter in the commentary. It is intended to undermine the credibility of the source, but the effect is to undermine the credibility of the entire form of media. The entire blog turns into a discussion about the blog itself — and its authors, and their styles --- and not about the substance of the matters presented. That is where we are missing the opportunity.

For example, I have had serious (and non-anonymous) exchanges on the substance of issues with you, Will Folks, and a handful of other bloggers – the same as I would with John O’Connor or Jim Davenport. For that I have been slammed in commentaries. (Indeed, I expect to get hammered just for having this interview.) That sort of attack just undermines the whole endeavor. Can you imagine the chilling effect if someone who talked with The State was accused of various thought-crimes the next day in the Rock Hill Herald for just having had the conversation? This is – or can be – a valid form of media. All sides should treat it as such.

If the commentary got better, I think you would see a spiraling-up effect, where the authors would improve, and the two components would reinforce each other in turn. We are a ways from that yet. If we get there, though, I think you will see this form of media eclipse old-style print media. The interactive component provides that much of an advantage.

I hope to be able to put my money where my mouth is, by the way. I will be introducing my own blog later this month. I hope that I can contribute some meaningful commentary to various debates – although I will leave BBQ to you. We’ll see if I can deliver something of quality.

***Thanks, Rep. Mulvaney, for sharing your views with B&P.


gervais s. bridges said...

For those who are interested, these are the applicable provisions of the SC Code mentioned above:

SECTION 8-13-1314: “Within an election cycle, no candidate or anyone acting on his behalf shall solicit or accept, and no person shall give or offer to give to a candidate or person acting on the candidate's behalf… a contribution which exceeds … three thousand five hundred dollars in the case of a candidate for statewide office; or …one thousand dollars in the case of a candidate for any other office.”

SECTION 8-13-100. “ ‘Person’ means an individual, a proprietorship, firm, partnership, joint venture, joint stock company, syndicate, business trust, an estate, a company, committee, an association, a corporation, club, labor organization, or any other organization or group of persons acting in concert.”

SECTION 8-13-1330: “Contributions by each spouse are considered separate contributions and are not attributable to the other spouse. Contributions by unemancipated children under eighteen years of age are considered contributions by their parents.”

notverybright said...

There's lots here to react to.

First, kudos to you and Rep. Mulvaney for having the dialogue. I tried to do this with him on the evolution/intelligent design issue. He seriously considered it before backing off, concerned I believe primarily about my anonymity. But he's obviously a smart guy, and I hope this sort of exchange between elected officials and bloggers will increase. I keep getting turned down, not just by Rep. Mulvaney, but also Senator Graham's office and others. Glad you have more persuasive power or pull. Or maybe you're offering something under the table. (Secret Barbecue tips, maybe?)

Second, he's right about the comments in blogs often being a bit vitriolic. But so are letters to the editor of a newspaper. There's no guarantee anybody's going to stay on topic. If it gets too scurrilous, and off-topic I just delete the comment. But I think it's unfair to judge a blogger by his commenters. The test should be the blogger himself or herself: Has the track record shown the blogger to be serious, thoughtful, and fair?

Third, Rep. Mulvaney anticipated the criticism of his argument on the financing issue. It IS terribly legalistic. The question should be what's best for the system? And I don't agree with the position that it's somehow an infringement on free speech to try to limit big money influence. It's a hugely corrupting drain on how the system is supposed to work. But that debate is beyond the scope of one comment.

I do agree with portions of what Mulvaney says. He seems concerned about the big picture of how the system functions (example: gerrymandering). That's refreshing. Most elected officials in S.C. can't see the forest for the trees. Their trees.

Again, glad to read this sort of thing in the S.C. blogosphere. It's a refreshing change from people who think throwing around words like "Grahamnesty" is useful political debate.

Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

SECTION 8-13-100. “ ‘Person’ means ...any other organization or group of persons acting in concert.”

How could anyone argue with a straight face that Howard Rich doesn't fall under the above definition of "person?" He directs a series of organizations acting in concert. Under that interpretation, every penny above $3500 is a campaign finance law violation. Mick, you're answer is exactly why people hate lawyers...and I hate that, because I'm a lawyer. Just admit that it's prohibited conduct that no one will have the nuts to go after?!?

Breaking SCRG Windows said...

Shocking! Outrageous!! Shameful!!!

It's bad enough Mick Mulvaney takes voucher scam money, but he compounds his misdeeds when he admits talking with Will Folks!!

Mick has no shame!!

Oddly, Will has been berry berry quite about your posts. We’ve tried to draw him out, but for some reason he won't take the bait. :)

Anyway, we didn't mean to stray off topic. Another great job, Gervais.

We're up to the point we owe you a whole BBQ joint. Do you know one for sale?

Keep breaking their windows!! They can’t hide forever!!

Silence Dogood said...

Good for Rep. Mulvaney for talking with you in a thughtful way about this. I agree with 'Not Very Bright' that his answer on campaign finance is extremely legalistic and furthermore I truly don't think giving money is the necessarily the same as free speech (I realize there are arguments to be made both ways). But obviously that would lead to the argument that gift taxes are an impediment to free speech - with which I would disagree. Not that I don't enjoy the back ground on voucher campaign financing schemes that you have continued to point out, but hearing the Rep's thoughts on blogs and blogging was very interesting.

Deacon Tim said...

Thanks, Gervais, for doing this. I've found Rep. Mulvaney to be one of the more thougtful members of the House. Although his characterization of Alston DeVenny as a "liberal" is rather funny. He's a Democrat, but he's a pretty conservative one. He's an elected official in Lancaster, not exactly a liberal bastion, after all. (And Denney's spouse is a State agency director who's a favorite of the voucher crowd.)

Robert said...

Using his logic, money = free speech. Which is exactly the problem. After paying all my bills and student loans I guess I really can't afford to influence my own state's politicians.

Steve Reuland said...

Using his logic, bribery would be a form of free speech.

Anonymous said...

What is the point of having the vouchers in the first place? The Neo-Con crowd wants to TAKE MONEY FROM the public schools and GIVE it to the private schools. Rep Mulvaney stated that the law is the law. Most private schools are religious. Government funding will violate the separation of church and state. I was an educator in the public school system. My husband is an educator in the public school system. Taking money from the now UNDER-funded public schools and giving it to private schools is shameful. To top it off, Mr. Mulvaney is accepting money from "different companies" that have the same address in order to push private school vouchers through? Is Mr. Mulvaney a prostitute for special interest groups? Is this the kind of leadership that we want to represent those of us who live in District 16? If Mr. Mulvaney is being dishonest with who he is taking money from, how can he be honest with is constituents?

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semelokertes marchimundui said...

I'm looking forward to showing how much Mick Mulvaney disdains campaign finance laws at