- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 22, 2012

If you believe in free speech as it relates to campaign funding and have any measure of a stake in what happens in the nation’s capital, Monday is the day to speak now or risk having your mouth duct-taped.

The D.C. Board of Elections warned last week that Monday is the deadline to challenge Initiative 70, the grass-roots ballot question driven by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells and others to ban direct corporate contributions.

Supporters of the initiative handed over 30,000 voter signatures earlier this month and are hoping that come November, during the general election, a majority of D.C. voters will stand with them.

Advocates say corporate contributions finance a pay-to-play system that breeds public corruption and smothers the voices of the little people.

Well, when the movers and shakers of those corporations finance and support food kitchens, job fairs, gay-rights issues, public schooling, condom giveaways, and sporting, cultural and music events and the like, the little people are the beneficiaries.

But somehow, many members of the electorate are balking at campaign donations by these very same corporations — and what’s worse is some opponents don’t see that the true cause and effect of even, say, bundling.

For example, the Rev. Graylan Hagler, an old-school community activist and pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northeast, told me he wants the D.C. government to begin accepting, policing and distributing all campaign donations.

His radical idea would work this way: A company, individual or organization would donate X amount of money to, say, the race for mayor. The D.C. government would deposit the money into a government kitty for that race and then would evenly distribute the pool of money to each candidate in the race.

Now, in addition to mistakenly believing the D.C. government could efficiently, effectively and without bias pull off such a misguided notion, the bottom line is that it also silences the voice of the donors.

In other words, by establishing a so-called level playing field, as Mr. Hagler proposes, the government effectively wipes out donors’ First Amendment right to free speech, the very voice that otherwise says “I prefer Candidate A over Candidate B.”

Such a scenario also, it seems, would stifle an individual’s free speech.

Take Jeffrey E. Thompson, the businessman ensnared in the city’s worst political scandal since home rule.

Mr. Thompson has long donated long green to political campaigns in the District and elsewhere.

Some call that influence peddling but let’s really call it like it is.

Campaign donations are a way for individual and corporate donors to have a say in elections — and that is precisely as it should remain.

Money — whether donated by or on behalf of Mr. Thompson and other wealthy individuals — did not in and of itself corrupt anybody.

The corruption, whenever and wherever found, was carried out by individuals who crossed the double-yellow line.

And that line, by the way, is what D.C. voters should stay focused on, because banning corporate donations won’t stop special interests, however large or small, from yapping with candidates and trying to sway elected officials.

The future of Mr. Wells stands as a shining example.

A Democrat and former school board member in the middle of his second four-year term on the council, Mr. Wells is considering a run for mayor. He is a vocal supporter of Initiative 70 and knows that corporations, LLCs and small firms are already jockeying to position themselves for the current D.C. Council chairman’s race as well as critical elections in 2014, such as the mayor’s race and the first-ever D.C. attorney general campaign.

So get this: The Wells-for-mayor team has said it is trying to shore up $2.5 million, and as things currently stand on the legal side of the equation, that money can come in packages large and small.

Initiative 70 would change all of that — but not before the Wells camp runs to the bank.

How’s that for peddling before a hard uphill climb?

Deborah Simmons can be reached at [email protected]

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