March 2, 1997
In politics, it's hard to be high-minded

BY Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Self-restraint and moderation may not be the personality traits that immediately jump to mind when thinking about people who run for public office.

Ambition, yes. Ego, certainly. And, yes, for many, the desire to do good.

But politics being what it is - a game where the object is the pursuit and acquisition of power - the people who play it often have to suspend their higher brain functions to let the lower regions of the brain stem take over and rely on some considerably coarser instincts.

Avarice, for example. The inability to know when enough is enough.

As in when a candidate for Cincinnati city council thinks that winning a job that pays $47,978 a year is worth going out and grubbing for several hundred thousand campaign dollars.

Council candidates, particularly incumbents, are like U.S. House members - they run every two years, which means that the thought of the next election is never far from their minds.

In election years, they have a hard time thinking about anything else. A day in the life of a council candidate is simple: Wake up. Eat. Beg for money. Sleep.

In fact, so much money is needed to win a council seat these days - the average winning candidate spent about $180,000 two years ago - that it is difficult to imagine candidates being able to exercise any kind of restraint at all.

But, last Wednesday, in an otherwise uneventful city council meeting, that is what Mayor Roxanne Qualls asked them to do.

Ms. Qualls suggested they all agree to a spending limit of about $145,000 - about three times a council member's annual salary - and asked the city solicitor to draw up an ordinance to that effect.

Then she asked her council colleagues what they thought of the idea. Most made approving noises. The two current spending champs - Republican Phil Heimlich ($608,150 spent over the last two elections) and Republican Charles Winburn ($564,226) - didn't like the idea much.

Mr. Heimlich seemed to have a particularly bad case of the goo-goo when this was suggested; he said that maybe he'd think up some embarrassing questions of his own to ask around the council table.

The mandatory spending limit sponsored by Democrat Todd Portune ($180,740 over the last two elections) was passed in 1995 but struck down Jan. 31 by U.S. District Judge Herman Weber. The city is appealing Judge Weber's decision; and the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Campaign finance reform advocates like Mr. Portune and Ms. Qualls (she spent a total of $330,998 in 1993 and 1995) think voluntary limits would survive the scrutiny of the courts.

In addition to a voluntary limit, they want some incentives to encourage candidates to abide by it, such as allowing them to take twice the current limits on individual and political action committee contributions.

Opponents of campaign spending limits insist that even that would be unconstitutional; incentives would unfairly punish candidates who exercise their constitutional right to go out, work hard and raise as much money as they can. Any candidate who expends enough sweat and shoe leather can raise large amounts of money, they say, and shouldn't be restricted in any way.

Well, maybe not any candidate. Let's say you are a candidate and you need a quick $10,000 for a radio buy.

Would you rather be a candidate who can call up 10 wealthy people and get them to give you $1,000 each? Or would you rather be a candidate who doesn't know any rich people and has to call 1,000 at $10 a head?

Howard Wilkinson's politics column appears Sundays.

WILKINSON ARCHIVE