Politics and religion

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From the Publisher / Arnold G. York

This is going to be one hell of a presidential election. I have never in all the years I’ve been a Democrat seen the party so worked up. By the party I’m not just talking about the party officials. I mean everyone from the leaders of Congress right down to the busboy in the local restaurant. They don’t just dislike George W. Bush; they hate him with an intensity that’s almost hard to explain. I’ve known lots of Democrats that didn’t care for Reagan and disliked Nixon, but nothing ever like this. On some sort of primordial level there is a basic belief that Bush stole the election in Florida with the assistance of a cabal of amoral and ruthless men, and together they’re destroying this country. This election is going to be a plebiscite on Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Rep. Tom DeLay and Justice Antonin Scalia. And also on the ballooning national debt, the war in Iraq, the corporate crooks, the rising gas prices, the lax Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement, the sweetheart mutual fund deals and, most of all, the exporting of American jobs and the devastation it’s caused. It’s not going to be pretty.

Invitation to the candidates

This race for city council, coming up on April 13, is unusual in that for the first time in a long time we have an election where there is, in effect, an open seat. There are three seats up, but only two incumbents are running, Jeff Jennings and Ken Kearsley. Walt Keller, a longtime city councilmember, is trying a comeback, and three people new to Malibu politics are running: Jay Liebig, Pamela Conley Ulich and Bill Winokur. I also hardly know the last three at all, so I’m publicly inviting all six candidates to individually sit down with me, one on one, for a 90-minute lunch so I can ask some blunt questions and they can give some blunt answers, which I can pass on to you. I’ll be calling them all shortly to set up the lunches.

Campaign laws

We are running a column this week from Xandra Kayden, hired by the city to serve as election ethics consultant to try and referee some of the conflicts that seem to arise in every Malibu election. The city’s intentions were relatively pure in the hire, and she is an individual of impeccable reputation for fairness. Nevertheless, in reading Kayden’s weekly report, I was a bit perplexed. The questions of election law and the application of election law has become so Byzantine in their complexity, no candidate dare leave home without a lawyer in his or her pocket, since these questions may impact the outcome of elections so significantly. What these laws have birthed is a plethora of independent committees, which, if they are truly independent, can spend whatever they want. And that’s always the question. Are the independent committees truly independent or are they shams organized to get around the limitations on campaign contributions? The other side of that argument is the question whether the limitations on contributions are really fair. If you keep the contributions low enough (in Malibu it’s $100 per person), it gives an incumbent with name recognition an enormous advantage. Understand, our campaign laws were instituted by a different set of incumbents, so you can’t blame the current incumbents for the laws. Still, you wonder whether we’ve created a system that makes no one happy and ultimately turns everyone into liars.

Gibson and the “Passion”

Gibson and “The Passion” are on its way to make a couple of hundred million domestically, so I guess all is forgiven. Much as I was curious, I couldn’t bring myself to see it. Not because of the charges of anti-Semitism, which I suspect was a bit unfair to Mel Gibson, but because of the horrible level of violence that a number of people have described to me. But what I did do is punch into the Internet search engine, Google, Mel Gibson, and then his father, Hutton Gibson. Hutton Gibson is quite a piece of work and I recommend that you do your own search (www.google.com) and read some of things that he has written, and then you’ll understand why there’s such controversy about the Gibson name.

Ethics in campaigning:

You know it when you see it

Guest Column / Xandra Kayden

The idea of an “ethical election campaign” is an oxymoron to some. Part of my job, as Malibu’s ethics consultant, is to help the up-coming city election for city council move a little closer to a better campaign environment for both the candidates and the voters.

Ultimately, it is the candidates who must take personal responsibility for the ethics of their campaigns. While campaigning to provide information to the voters about why they should be elected over others, they should not act in ways that infringe on your ability to make an informed choice among the candidates. Nor should they-or anyone else-engage in behavior that undermines confidence in the electoral system.

All but one of the candidates in the April 13 election signed the state’s ethics pledge. We have met to talk about a process to handle complaints, and to consider what it will take to make this a better election than its predecessors. We talked about appeals to a watchdog commission that will have the ability to rule on the fairness of campaign charges, about mounting a Web site-paid for by the candidates-to provide voters with the latest information, of attempting to restrain independent spending supporters, and efforts such as this column to provide voters with as much information as possible about the state of the campaign from an ethics point of view.

The greatest concern is about independent expenditures. There are already charges of inaccurate information being spread and complaints about whether or not persons spending money are truly independent of the campaigns they support. The political divisions are deep and heartfelt in this small community. As a group, the candidates acknowledged respect for each other’s candidacies, but were concerned about their capacity to affect the behavior of others.

Independent expenditures are wild cards in campaigns. Elections have been both won and lost by the actions of outsiders. In 1980, John Connally, the former governor of Texas, was running in Iowa for the Republican nomination for the presidency, as “a man of the people.” Someone took out full-page ads in all the state’s newspapers the weekend before the election saying Connally was The Candidate for Business. He had the right to do so, of course, but it blew the Connally strategy out the window and his campaign ended in a heap shortly thereafter. In another year, some presidential candidates called together those most likely among their supporters to make independent expenditures, told them their campaign strategy, and then announced that-since they now had contact with the campaign and knew its strategy-they would not be able to make independent expenditures.

Independent expenditures are funds spent by an individual or a committee that are not “under the control or at the direction of, in cooperation, consultation, coordination, or concert with, at the request of suggestion of, or with the express, prior consent” of the candidate and/or his or her committee. In 1976, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protected independent expenditures because money in politics is equivalent to communication. A few years ago, Justice John Paul Stevens argued in a minority opinion that “money is money,” not communication, but as yet that is not the law of the land.

Independent expenditures of $1,000 or more that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate or ballot measure must be reported to the State’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Communications of over 200 pieces of mail must include the name and address of the individual or committee making the expenditure, and identify the top two donors of over $50,000 of a committee.

Campaign finance law is about measuring the money, probably because it is easier to measure than something as vague as “ethics.” While it is not against the law to lie in a campaign, the closest we came in our discussions to defining an unethical action was the analogy to pornography: you know it when you see it.

We are trying to engender a new tone in the campaign. In the end, however, a really good election depends on educated voters.

Xandra Kayden was hired by the City of Malibu as an ethics consultant for the April city council election. She has written this column to explain ethics in campaigning and election rules.