Just try to target lobbying in Texas
By Mitchell Schnurman
Star-Telegram Staff Writer
Sun, Feb. 24, 2008
Barack Obama says he can be an agent of change because he can rise above the influence of big money in politics. That's a tall order in Washington and an even tougher notion in Texas.
Last week, when Obama rocked a packed house in Dallas -- and reminded all that his campaign "hasn't taken a dime from lobbyists" -- one of his frontmen was Ron Kirk.
Kirk is best known as Dallas' first African-American mayor, but he was also a key lobbyist on the TXU buyout last year. Kirk collected more than $300,000 for helping get the utility deal through the Texas Legislature without a lot of extra consumer protections.
Kirk also frequently talks up Obama to the news media, and he revved up the crowd Wednesday for the candidate's speech.
"For the first time in a long time, Texas matters," Kirk said.
But how much does big money matter to voters?
Obama highlights this issue, and not only because it differentiates him from Hillary Clinton and the Washington establishment. More important, he says he'll be able to make sweeping changes precisely because he won't be beholden to such influences.
"We can go ahead and tell the lobbyists their days of setting the agenda are over in Washington," Obama said Wednesday. "They have not funded my campaign. They will not run my White House. And they will not drown out the voices of the American people."
Enlisting Kirk sends a different message, though -- that such ties are hardly absolute, at least not among his supporters.
In theory, big money and politics should be a vital matter to the public because a cozy connection suggests that the wealthy, powerful and organized can tilt the playing field their way. In reality, the subject seems to hardly register in Texas. Here, the "revolving door" between lawmakers and lobbying has been a bipartisan way of life for years.
Kirk is an example from the Democrats' camp. James Baker, a former secretary of state, was one of several GOP operatives to play a key role in the TXU deal. He even talked publicly about how much money he and his law firm would make if TXU was taken private.
In Texas, the well-connected don't apologize for cashing in.
When Gov. Rick Perry ordered a vaccine for school-age girls to protect against cervical cancer, he riled his conservative base. And critics on both sides of the aisle pointed to an apparent conflict: Perry's former chief of staff had become a lobbyist for Merck, the vaccine's maker.
Perry didn't back down, but the Legislature trumped him and rescinded his order.
Every legislative session, similar stories come to light connecting money and lawmaker votes. Texas has more lobbyists per legislator than most states. And according to a 2004 study by the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, more than half the state's legislators (and their spouses) had some financial ties to lobbyists -- easily the largest percentage in the country.
"They utterly permeate the political system," says Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice in Austin, which tracks political spending. "If you took away the lobby, you could ask whether the government would still be standing."
It's easy to make lobbyists a target, especially after Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay demonstrated how far the abuses have gone. Last week, John McCain was the subject of a New York Times report questioning whether he had become too close with a female lobbyist, an allegation he vehemently denied.
But lobbyists aren't innately evil, and they're expected to play an important role in our government. Legislatures are designed to be lobbied, with advocates expected to ardently make their case. That's one way that lawmakers learn what people want.
"One person's special interest is another person's representative," says Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics project at the University of Texas at Austin.
He says the question is who has the resources and commitment to stick with the process. Usually, that's not the public, which is why the federal government imposes some restrictions on the lobby's revolving door in Washington.
Texas has required more disclosure about lobbying and contributions, but it's resisted major reforms. And it's hard to imagine Obama's influence extending to Austin. Many doubt that he can change Washington.
Registered lobbyists account for a very small share of contributions to presidential candidates, including to Hillary Clinton, says Massie Ritsch of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations. The big money comes from pharmaceutical companies, law firms, hedge funds, defense companies, hospital groups and the like.
But Obama deserves credit for raising the issue and making it a part of the discussion.
"Voters understand that contributions can translate into policy," Ritsch says. "Before Obama, we never had such a specific debate about whose money the candidates would take and what it means."
Obama can stake out this ground, in part, because he's been so successful at attracting online donations from individuals. He does get support from major unions and other traditional Democratic interests. But Clinton's fundraising has come from larger donations and fewer supporters, while Obama has raised record amounts from more people who gave less than $200.
Obama often says that Washington has no shortage of good ideas; the trick lies in getting them adopted.
In the past, political power depended on big money. With Obama, it comes from bashing it.
If he succeeds, can this approach take hold elsewhere and trickle down to Texas? Only someone who believes in the audacity of hope would even suggest it.
MITCHELL SCHNURMAN'S COLUMN APPEARS SUNDAYS AND WEDNESDAYS. 817-390-7821