Are Special Interest Contributions Hurting or Helping Oklahoma's Political Process?

Monday, October 25th 2010, 8:45 pm
By: News On 6

By Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma has a strict limit on how much money individuals, businesses, and political action committees can give directly to political candidates during an election cycle -- $5,000.

But that's not keeping some of those same donors from giving tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in indirect support to candidates in Oklahoma. It's perfectly legal, but some feel big money is detrimental to the democratic process in Oklahoma and across the country.

In 1974, when David Boren went through a primary, a runoff, and then the general election to become the state's 21st governor, his campaign spent a total of $490,000. This year, each candidate had spent $2 million by early August. Some political observers believe there's a good change that total spending in this race could top $10 million by the time the wheels grind to a halt.

The donations -- from the smallest to the largest -- are all detailed in the public disclosure section of the Oklahoma Ethics Commission web site. Most of that money comes from individual donors, while about six to eight percent comes from political action committees, which allow individual to pool their resources.

The final candidate contribution reports, due by midnight October 25 and obtained by the Oklahoma Impact Team, showed both Mary Fallin and Jari Askins with $3.9 million in total funds received thus far in their campaigns. In the case of the Askins campaign, about a third of the money was loaned from the candidate herself. Lt. Gov. Askins has made loans of $775,000, $100,000, and now another $350,000 to her campaign, according to a campaign filing.

See who's contributing candidates and how much

"If people are donating, then that's their choice to donate," said Amber Brock, one of several workers downtown who agreed to speak on the topic recently.

"Well, I just figure that's what's gotta be done in order to get elected," said Larry Lancaster, about the amount of money that candidates have to raise, "it's just the name of the game."

"The golden rule," stated Dick Rouse, a former candidate for elective office himself. "He who has the gold rules."

Former governor David Boren says the money is out of control.

Boren is a long-time advocate for campaign finance reform and famously refused to accept any money from so-called special interests in his gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. Now president of the University of Oklahoma, Boren says his concern about the influence of what he calls 'outside' money on campaigns and candidates has not changed -- in fact, he says, the problem is worse.

"I look at the corrupting influence of too much money awash in our political system," said Boren, "too much of it coming from special interest groups outside of the grass roots, and I look at that as a very serious threat to our future."

Boren says statistics show that the candidate with the most money wins in almost 94 percent of races. He feels that puts too much pressure on candidates to raise money, and everyone loses.

"The citizens are victimized," Boren explained. "They're made to feel they no longer really have grass roots democracy, that they no longer have public officials who really listen to them and represent them...and [the candidates themselves] are victimized too, because they're forced to raise such large sums of money that they really are forced to compromise themselves in some ways."

With Republicans -- in state and out of state -- hoping to seize on the anti-Democrat sentiment permeating the nation, donors are pumping additional millions into the coffers of advocacy groups like the Republican Governors Association, which are not limited in the size of the contributions they accept. The RGA has produced and run a series of ads strongly criticizing Democrat Jari Askins. The RGA is prohibited from coordinating its campaign with Republican Mary Fallin's campaign.

Filings with the Ethics Commission show the largest single donation to the RGA's Oklahoma campaign to be $500,000, made by Devon Energy. Records indicate Devon and its employee-funded political action committee (DEVPAC) are giving a total of about a $1 million to candidates and advocacy groups this election cycle.

A Devon spokesman, Chip Minty, says the contributions are, in no way, an attempt to buy access to the state's next governor. In a statement, Minty said, "We only support candidates who already share our pro-energy, pro-business and pro-jobs viewpoint. If they are elected, we do not need special access."

Devon is certainly not alone in making large contributions to candidates and advocacy groups.

The Oklahoma Education Association, with donations totaling about $600,000 this year, stated, "We do not believe that campaign contributions allow OEA any more access to candidates or elected officials than other groups that may not provide campaign assistance."

A spokesman for the Chickasaw Nation, whose donations total approximately $800,000 this election cycle, simply wrote, "...We support candidates who have similar policy views."

The Oklahoma Farm Bureau, at the direction of its members, contributed equally to both the Fallin and Askins campaigns. In total, the organization's PAC, the Oklahoma Ag Fund, is giving about $120,000 to candidates this year, in the hope of giving members a voice, not access.

"It's one of those things that, as an individual, your dollar might not make a difference," said Lori Peterson, V.P. of Public Policy, "but when you put it together with people who share the same policy beliefs as you, then you can make a contribution to a candidate that will help them."

So, does that kind of 'help' -- i.e., the money needed to run a campaign -- make it more likely those donors will get better treatment, if the candidate is elected? Oklahoma's two gubernatorial candidates say, 'no.'

"Well, I treat everyone equally," Rep. Fallin stated over the phone, "no matter what they give, or don't give to my campaign."

"I have a record of voting my conscience on pieces of legislation," Lt. Gov Askins told us in an interview, "regardless of whether someone had given me a campaign contribution or not."

And still, the former governor and former U.S. Senator, Mr. Boren says, it's not that simple, for even the most honorable and honest candidate.

"The fact is," lamented Boren, "it's very hard to have amnesia about where you got your money to run your campaign."