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Editorial columns

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Money chase keeps pols from much governing

I was ready to start my new job when my boss walked into my office and put a monkey carved from wood on my desk. The monkey was holding a phone against its ear. “Congratulations, you are now a phone monkey – start making those telephone calls for money,” she barked cheerfully.

What was my new job? I was a political candidate. Just a few days before, I had launched my candidacy in the Democratic primary in Arkansas for Congress. And my boss? She was my campaign consultant.

Four years ago, my campaign ended when I finished third of five candidates in the Democratic primary – but I had fun and learned a lot, especially about the role of money in politics.

I still have that wooden monkey in my office to remind me that candidates must spend a huge proportion of their time calling folks to ask for money.

I spent 70 percent to 80 percent of my time on the phone asking people for money. This kind of work is not glamorous and often discouraging.

I had been a Justice Department attorney and chief of staff to a congressman: People returned my phone calls right away. Once I became a candidate, lots of people weren’t so eager to call me back, because they knew I’d be asking for money.

I didn’t win my election – but if I had, my experience on Capitol Hill has taught me that my life as a phone monkey would have continued. Anyone who has worked there knows the ubiquitous term “call time.” When I first heard it, I thought of the moment during a church service when the preacher would call members to the front of the church to rededicate their lives to God. But I quickly learned that in Washington the term had more to do with the worship of Mammon than the worship of God. “Call time” meant the hours that members of Congress set aside to make phone calls for money.

A Gallup poll last year showed that nearly 8 in 10 Americans support the idea of campaign fundraising limits. Recent Supreme Court rulings show, however, that the court views such limits as unconstitutional. Perhaps this is in part because the current court doesn’t have a justice like Sandra Day O’Connor, Earl Warren or Hugo Black, who has actually run for elected office.

Fundraising has many negatives, but I did discover one positive. It measures the amount of hustle in a candidate to build up a network of financial support. As a kid playing basketball, if I worked hard my coach would shout, “Good hustle!” The ability to raise money certainly measures that kind of initiative in a candidate.

To get elected to Congress (and then to get re-elected) under our current laws, one’s skill at raising money has become more important than one’s skill at mastering policy issues, giving a good old stemwinder or having a firm handshake.

Each time I look at the phone monkey, it reminds me of this reality. And it causes me to wonder: Is this the kind of democracy that we really want?

David Boling, vice president of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, is writing a book about how it feels to be a first-time candidate. He wrote this for the Washington Post.

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