COMMENTARY: W. GARDNER SELBY
State senator starts year with empty kittyThough many of his colleagues have millions banked, Wentworth considers big balances obscene.
By W. Gardner Selby
Thursday, January 24, 2008
State Sen. Jeff Wentworth, a Republican whose San Antonio-rooted district runs north into Travis County, started the year with no campaign funds.
Not to panic; he's got an Austin fundraiser scheduled, and he's expecting to seek re-election in 2010.
But Wentworth, a legislator since 1988, sees no good in piling up campaign cash, though he concedes that big balances deter challengers.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, a legislator since 1973, topped the 31 state senators with nearly $3.5 million in hand through December. Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson, who represents the bulk of Travis County, ranked fourth among senators with a balance of nearly $1.2 million. All together, senators had more than $18 million in their campaign accounts at year's end.
Wentworth, who was alone with nada, considers balances of more than $1.5 million obscene: "They're perversions of the system. They're unconscionable" because they make races nearly noncompetitive.
Supersize balances "virtually make the ouster of an incumbent impossible," Wentworth said, and send the message that a senator is "invincible; 'I'm senator for life.' I don't think our forefathers would approve. I could never in good conscience carry that kind of a balance."
Wentworth's biggest reported balance since candidates started revealing their bottom lines in 2003 was $187,381 entering 2006.
A caution: Wentworth isn't saying incumbents don't need money. From 2000 through 2007, after all, he and Whitmire each raised nearly $3 million, with Whitmire (who raised $2.9 million) besting Wentworth in contributions by $164,000.
But Wentworth said there should be a legal cap of about $1.5 million on campaign balances, though, he speculated, a legal cap might raise constitutional questions.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, which recently completed a study of campaign spending by state officeholders, knows of no states that cap campaign balances.
McDonald said any cap would likely be short-circuited by lawmakers shifting any money exceeding the cap to political committees capable of sending money back as needed.
"We agree incumbents have all the advantages, and building a war chest is one of them," McDonald said.
Whitmire, questioning Wentworth's assessment, said Wentworth "must have got off his medicine. It's real simple: There's 31 senators and 31 different approaches to campaigning."
Whitmire, noting that he built up his money over 20 years with donations from conservatives and liberals, said he's also careful about spending.
His treasury wards off challengers, he agreed, but it also gives him the option of considering runs for statewide office or for an office back home in Harris County — both potentially costly propositions.
Besides, Whitmire said, "money alone does not win campaigns. It's issues that win campaigns."
While emptying his kitty the second half of 2007, Wentworth boosted some charities and causes. In November, he gave $9,200 to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's campaign.
When I noted that was double what an individual could legally give Cornyn for his 2008 race, Wentworth said he'd inadvertently recorded the Cornyn contributions as coming from his campaign when they really came from him and his wife, Karla, who gave $4,600 each, the maximum an individual can give to a candidate per election year.
The senator's campaign spent $3,951 on a commemorative lapel pin made for George W. Bush when he was governor that Bush never paid for or picked up. And his campaign gave about $30,000 to charity, topped by $7,500 for the University Health System Foundation Peveto Center for Pastoral Care in San Antonio.
Wentworth may soon replenish his political funds, but he's not seeking a reputation as a soft touch.
"There are many requests for money I receive that I cannot honor; I throw them away," he said.