Rowland The Reformer?

By Claudio Gualtieri and Drew Warshaw, Op-Ed

We've read with interest the many articles on the Rowland scandal, and we wonder if we are missing something. Sure, the guy lied. He accepted gifts from people with direct interests in state contracts, and then he covered up. This is intolerable behavior that cannot be excused. But impeachment seems too easy.

This is bigger than John G. Rowland. This is about protecting Connecticut from future abuses and corruption, not simply the current problem. Throwing Rowland out would be a waste considering what lawmakers can do with him in power. With one swoop of his pen, Gov. Rowland could go from crony of special interests to champion of the public interest.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "The spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless .. It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing every essential right ... is while our rulers are honest and ourselves united."

With Rowland in power, both of Jefferson's conditions would be met. First, there is bipartisan consensus that political corruption exists and must end. Second, Connecticut has a governor who has promised to go to great lengths to reclaim the trust and respect of his constituents.

With Rowland out of power, there is a real chance that this bipartisan consensus would disintegrate. Gone will be the urgency for reform. In its place will be a false sense of comfort - Connecticut got rid of the bad apple, and something like this will never happen again.

But it will happen again.

This is not some cynical reflection on human nature, but a real-world look at the current system of campaign financing and its effects on governance. Connecticut has the opportunity to go beyond addressing simply the giving of hot tubs. After all, it may not be hot tubs next time.

Less obvious, and thus potentially more dangerous, are private campaign contributions, which can buy a lot more than a hot bath. As long as private interests have a stake in public contracts, state funds and regulation laws, those private interests will continue contributing large sums of money to candidates' election campaigns in the effort to gain leverage and access in the political process.

Because money matters so much, because the candidate with the most money wins more than nine out of 10 times, it is all but impossible to elect politicians free from special-interest debt. A narrow prescription that only addresses hot tub-giving will not address the broader culture of corruption.

So what to do?

Today, Connecticut's campaign finance laws do little. Because the laws address only the supply of campaign contributions (providing certain limits on donations), the demand for such contributions remains unaddressed.

Three years ago, the legislature passed a clean-money campaign-reform bill that would have addressed head-on the demand for campaign contributions by substituting private money with public money.

It was a great idea. The only problem was that Gov. John G. Rowland vetoed the bill.

Six states across the country have done what Rowland refused to do. By enacting clean-money campaign reform, candidates and incumbents in those states now spend their time on issues, not on a money chase. As a result, more people run for office, more races are contested and more people vote in those states. Furthermore, those elected officials are accountable to voters, not donors. With publicly financed campaigns, there are no private contributors to owe favors.

Under a clean-money system, candidates have a choice: They can continue to collect large sums of special-interest money and be beholden to those interests once in office, or they can choose to accept public money and be beholden to the public interest.

In his most recent address to the state, Rowland said: "I humbly ask for a renewed opportunity to earn back your trust, to redeem myself in your eyes and to continue to lead this state." If he wants trust, he needs to earn it. And what better way to earn it than by signing a campaign finance reform bill into law.

Claudio Gualtieri of Newington and Drew Warshaw of New York City co-founded Democracy Matters of Cornell University, a nonpartisan, student-based organization committed to comprehensive campaign and election reform. They graduated in May and are both working in Washington, Gualtieri as a clerk in Congress and Warshaw for a progressive think tank.

See the article on Hartford Courant website

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