City candidates oppressed by limits on donations
Sunday, December 13, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

If you were to make a list of oppressed peoples around the world struggling to be free, chances are the wealthy Cincinnati campaign contributors and the council candidates who cash their checks would not leap to mind.

Indian Hill is a long way from Kosovo.

But to hear Cincinnati Councilman Charles Winburn tell it, the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of council candidates and their benefactors alike are being trampled by a brutal, terrifying force:

Campaign finance reform.

Another Cincinnati City Council campaign season is about to begin, which means that candidates - incumbents and challengers alike - are out rattling their tin cups.

They are constrained, however, by the fact that three years ago, five of nine council members approved a campaign contribution limit law - $1,000 from individuals, $2,500 from political action committees (PACs) and $10,000 from political parties.

Before that law was passed, it was not uncommon for wealthy individuals to hand their favorite council candidates checks of $10,000 or more; and the political parties - the Republicans, at least - would dump $50,000 or more into a candidate's campaign.

One does not need a doctorate in economics to understand that if you pay more, you get more. Let's say you give your favorite council candidate $10. Some other fellow gives the same candidate $10,000. Whose phone call does the council member return first?

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the city's appeal of its campaign spending limit law, which had been struck down by lower courts as unconstitutional.

Mr. Winburn saw the opportunity to persuade a council majority to repeal the contribution limit, which is also being challenged in federal court - although the courts have consistently upheld the constitutionality of limiting campaign contributions.

Going into Wednesday's council meeting, it appeared Mr. Winburn (who spent $269,417 in his 1997 campaign) had the votes to do it. Republicans Phil Heimlich ($456,352 in 1997, a record) and Jeanette Cissell supported him, as did Democrat Minette Cooper. The new council member, Democrat Paul Booth, had said he was leaning that way, but, at the last minute, got cold feet.

Mr. Winburn had the vote delayed until at least this week's meeting. It is not money that is evil, Mr. Winburn told council, it is the love of money that is evil.

We're not exactly sure what Mr. Winburn was trying to say. Our best guess is something like this: Go raise big piles of money, just don't sit in the middle of the room tossing it over your head and rubbing it on your face.

For candidates, contribution limits are inconvenient. If a candidate knows someone who is willing to give $10,000, it is much easier to call that person than it is to find 10 people to give $1,000 each or 100 people to give $100 each.

Plus, you don't have so many thank-you cards to write.

Mr. Winburn, earlier in the week, was trying to make the argument that the campaign contribution limit was the first step down a slippery slope to the elimination of other fundamental rights.

"Next thing you know," Mr. Winburn opined, "people are going to want to limit the amount of money given to charities."

Eureka! We think we have discovered the root of Mr. Winburn's aversion to contribution limits. He thinks candidates' campaign funds are charities.

We would like to explain the difference: When you give big money to a charity, you don't expect something in return. When you give big money to a candidate, you do.

No one has ever given $10,000 to a homeless shelter to have a bed for the night.

Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at