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Say it ain’t so. Jeff Smith has taken $9,750 from Rex Sinquefield’s shell committees. It looks bad, not so much because it could make Jeff look corrupt as because it legitimizes taking money from someone who is skirting campaign finance law in Missouri.

As for the corruption issue, that one’s easy to rebut. Although Jeff has taken money from Sinquefield, we need not worry that the cash will influence Jeff to support vouchers. Jeff has always opposed vouchers and has proven it. After accepting the money from Sinquefield, he turned around and declined to sponsor Derio Gambaro for the State Board of Education, thus effectively deep sixing Gambaro’s nomination. Refusing to sponsor Board of Education nominees is practically unknown, but that was the second time in a year that Jeff declined to sponsor a nominee from his district, and in both cases the specific reason was that the nominees were pro-voucher.

Sinquefield is not buying a vote for vouchers with his contribution to Jeff’s campaign.  

Instead, the Sinquefield contributions come from committees working to advance the cause of charter schools and to bring more highly qualified teachers into the St. Louis City school district. Both of those are causes Jeff has always espoused. In 2000, he helped form and still promotes a charter school in the city, Confluence Academy.

As for obtaining more qualified teachers for city schools, I’ve written about Jeff’s proposals to allow teachers to opt into a voluntary pay for performance program, to certify teachers without education courses if they are highly qualified in their subject area, and to offer $5000 bonuses to teachers in areas with the most critical shortage of qualified people.

Okay, so Jeff’s not corrupt, but is he wise? There’s still that niggling question of taking money from a man who is skirting campaign finance law in an attempt to privatize more of our educational system. If Sinquefield has his way, the public school system in this state will be weakened because our tax money will enable parents to send their children to private schools–a topic I’ve also written about.

Jeff responded to that criticism in a phone conversation we had, pointing out first that taking money from groups who are skirting campaign finance laws is nothing new. That particular gambit has been going on for years.

In the city of St. Louis, for example, Pyramid Construction creates a new LLC for every new development it gets involved in. There are probably fifty of them, and the money goes overwhelmingly to Democrats–people like Yaphett el-Amin, who ran against Jeff for state senator, alderman Lewis Reed, alderman Mike McMillan, and Mayor Slay. Unions do the same thing. Each local will have a different PAC or several PACs. One union might give to a candidate out of a dozen different PACs.

Sinquefield and his 100 PACs are nothing new. He’s just a bit more brazen than real estate, insurance, and development firms and unions.

And besides, Jeff notes, “I’m not using any of this money for myself. I’m using it to get other Democrats elected.” In a year when he isn’t running, he plans to use the money to help in five senate races he has his eye on.

I’ll give away over 99 percent of the money I take in. In fact, I didn’t ask for the money for myself. I asked for it for the caucus or campaign committee and they ended up writing it to me, which I didn’t know was going to happen.

Furthermore, Jeff says that, as the senator in charge of getting more Democratic senators elected this year, he’s not willing to handcuff himself. If he only accepted money from people with whom he always agreed, he’d only be able to accept about 20 percent of the money he now gets. As Michael Bersin pointed out to me, turning down that other 80 percent would be like unilateral disarmament.

Ain’t that an ugly system? Yes, indeedy, and Jeff knows it. That’s why he’s introducing a clean elections bill this year. It’s modeled on the laws that a few other states have enacted to good effect. It basically offers public financing to legislative and gubernatorial candidates who collect a given amount of seed money in small contributions to prove that they’ve got an acceptable level of public support.

The bill doesn’t have a prayer in this legislature, of course, and might not have even if Dems were in charge. (Keep in mind that Democratic state senators Tim Green, Florissant, and Chuck Graham, Columbia, co-sponsored the bill that lifted all the campaign finance limitations.) Until there’s a groundswell of public outcry for such legislation, it will get nowhere. But still, Jeff’s putting the idea out there.

Note: On this blogsite, I’ve been hard on candidates over this campaign finance issue. I’ve criticized Chris Koster for taking Sinquefield money, and after all Koster insists he’s not pro-voucher. (But then again, considering Koster’s legislative record, why would I trust him?) I’ve come down hard on Hillary and Obama for taking more money from big pharma and defense contractors than any other candidates, Republican or Democratic. (Their records seem less progressive to me than Edwards’s, so I find their huge campaign warchests suspect.)

Have I been too much of a purist? Couldn’t say for sure. I do know that I find myself giving Jeff Smith the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s just because I’ve known him since 2003 and did some phone calling for him in his attempt to take Gephardt’s open seat in 2004. The bottom line is that I like him personally and I appreciate his fervor for helping his constituents.

So I’ll take refuge in Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”