4-24 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

Have you ever stopped to think of the expenses involved in running a political campaign?

Let’s forget about President Bush, who has raised $185 million for his re-election campaign. And though it may seem like peanuts, U.S. Sen. John Kerry has raised $85 million to challenge Bush.

In terms of national elections, fundraising means everything. Neither Bush nor Kerry can visit every city and kiss every baby. In some cases, they may not even visit every state during the course of this presidential election. Because of that, they rely on money to win elections. They pay campaign workers, purchase TV ads in urban markets, and hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars to “experts” who tell them how to win an election.

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Forget about that for a minute. Instead, think about local candidates and the money they spend to finance a campaign.

Last week, candidates were required to submit their quarterly campaign reports. For those of us in Demopolis and West Alabama, there weren’t many reports to find.

In the District Attorney’s race pitting Greg Griggers against challenger Barrown Lankster, Griggers has a commanding lead in terms of working capital for his campaign. According to his finance report, Griggers has raised $29,329 for this year’s DA campaign. Lankster, on the other hand, reported raising $1,500. He also reported taking an $8,000 loan to help fund his campaign.

With that money on hand, Griggers reported spending $13,051 so far. Lankster has spent $6,098.

The U.S. House of Representatives election, where Albert Turner Jr. is challenging incumbent U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, is the only other election where campaign finances reports are important. Interestingly, though, only of the two candidates in the race have filed finance reports.

On April 15, Davis filed a report showing he had $490,000 in his campaign war chest. Turner, on the other hand, has not filed a financial disclosure form.

On Friday, I tried to reach Turner to get comment on why he hadn’t disclosed his finances, but Turner was traveling out of town and his cell phone broke up during our brief conversation.

In a federal election like the U.S. House race, candidates are required to file a finance report if they have raised more than $5,000. Therefore, the only legal reason Turner has for not disclosing his finances is that he has not raised that much money yet. That could not be confirmed as of press time.

Though it’s interesting to look at candidates and how much money they’ve raised for a political campaign, I have a theory that campaign finances on the local level aren’t that important.

In the Davis-Turner election, money is much more important. The 7th Congressional District spans hundreds of miles, and those two candidates need name exposure — both through media advertising and signage.

And even in the race between Griggers and Lankster, there’s a small need for name recognition. Even still, I don’t believe having signs at every intersection helps a candidate on a local level. More specifically, candidates in municipal elections like the ones upcoming in each of our cities can’t count on votes just because they have a lot of signs.

On the local level — the district attorney’s race included — we Black Belt voters still have a peculiar way of casting our ballots. Anyone who disagrees that we vote based on race is not telling the truth.

Unfortunately, most citizens in rural areas of the state take skin color into consideration before any other factor. Let’s take a hypothetical election, and you can decide if that’s the case:

A white judge is up for re-election in Rural County, Ala. During his first term as judge, the white incumbent gives more than half of all the violent criminals the minimum sentence and gives probation to the other half.

Yes, that’s a stretch for any judge, but how would the poll numbers look if the white candidate had opposition from a black candidate?

I’ve seen four elections in the past six years in Alabama’s Black Belt, and every white box votes for the white candidate while every black box overwhelmingly supports the black candidate.

We’ve got an electoral problem in West Alabama and the Black Belt. While the rest of the nation (and most of the state) has a two-party political process, we’ve still got one. While the rest of the state votes on Super Tuesday in November, we in West Alabama vote on Duped Tuesday in June.

Most times, the campaign finance issue gets a bad rap because of the increasing perception of purchased votes. In our case, wouldn’t it be nice if dialogue and commercials really mattered? Wouldn’t it be nice if candidates had to spend money to get their messages out?

When that happens, and we listen to messages and issues more than we look at skin tones, we might begin to change a real and true image of our region.