In just a week, the leadership of the Connecticut Democratic Party will hold their 2010 Democratic State Convention in order to select their nominees for governor and Connecticut’s other Constitutional offices. Between the pomp and circumstance and the backroom wheeling and dealing, some careers will be made while others will be forced to leave the field of battle, bruised and defeated.
Conventions can be interesting, spectacular, and shocking events and I have to say that I have had the honor and privilege to participate in some of the best over the past 30 years.
But I digress, because as Connecticut’s Democrats prepare for this year’s convention I am reminded of that old adage, attributed to the 19th Century French novelist and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, who said “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Why? Because despite years of debate and even progressive action, Democrats remain fundamentally torn when it comes to the conflict between their rhetoric about the need for an open and fair democratic process, free of the curse of money – “the mother’s milk of politics” – and the equally powerful motivation of self-interest and the notion that the end justifies the means.
The influence of money and power on backroom deals has troubled many within the Democratic Party for decades.
Following the Watergate scandal, the Democrats passed significant campaign finance reform laws aimed at ending the era when the super rich and large corporations could “buy” politicians through their generous campaign donations. Strict donation limits and tougher disclosure laws changed how money was raised. The Congressional class of 1974, which included our own Chris Dodd and Toby Moffett, was held as an indicator of the new leadership we could expect if we promoted true campaign and political reforms.
Connecticut followed suit a few years later and also transformed the way Connecticut candidates raised funds.
While slower in coming, efforts also were made to open up the actual candidate nominating process.
Led by progressive Democrats on the federal and state level, the process was changed to allow for greater public participation and end the era of secret deals in smoke-filled back rooms. Presidential primaries were used to select delegates to the national presidential conventions and here at home laws were modified to promote easier access to primaries so that candidates could more easily bypass the party leadership and take their message directly to the registered members.
In Connecticut, a direct primary option was added allowing candidates to force a party primary by petitioning onto the ballot and the minimum number of delegates needed at the state convention to qualify for a primary was dropped from 20 percent to 15 percent of those present and voting.
While relatively minimal, these changes were, in fact, significant. Candidates for office could no longer rely on the massive wealth or the generosity of a few big donors. Candidates, even those at the margin, had far greater opportunities to force primaries and thus shift the decision about who should be the nominee out of the backrooms, past the convention floors, and into the light of day.
Despite these changes and the passage of time, the two primary issues surrounding the 2010 Democratic State Convention are somewhat ironic.
We are to decide whether Ned Lamont is “good” or “bad” for dismissing Connecticut’s new public campaign finance system so that he can dump tens of millions of his own dollars into his quest for governor. We also must decide whether Dan Malloy – who was the first gubernatorial candidate to qualify for public funds under the Citizens’ Election Program – is being “fair” or “unfair” as he wheels and deals his way to a possible 85.1 percent delegate majority.
With 85.1 percent of the convention delegates in his camp, Malloy would forestall an automatic primary for Lamont, who would hope to shift the nomination away from the 1,829 democratic leaders at the convention in favor of asking the state’s 780,000 registered democrats. In that scenario, name recognition may be a bigger factor. By statute, if Lamont fails to get 15 percent of the delegates he would still have the option to petition his way onto the ballot by gathering thousands of signatures from registered democrats.
It is ironic indeed…
Lamont claims to be a long-time supporter of campaign finance reform but argues that “if the party’s real goal is winning,” then he is the best choice since he is a multi-millionaire who can dedicate the funds necessary to win.
Meanwhile, Malloy has a long and progressive track record of supporting more open government and politics and yet he argues that “if the party’s real goal is winning” then a primary must be averted so that the party and its nominee can focus on winning in November.
It is certainly a quandary. Big money is bad, unless it means we can win. Open politics is good, unless it means we might lose.
So as the Democrats ponder whether the end justifies the means, watch for Lamont to make it crystal clear that he is the only candidate with the wealth necessary to win, while Malloy makes the deals he needs to make to force Lamont into petitioning for a primary.
I guess it is true – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Jonathan Pelto served as a member of the House of Representatives from 1984-1993. He was Deputy Majority Leader and member of the Appropriations Committees during the income tax debate of 1991. He presently works as a strategic communications consultant.