As Michael Bloomberg parachutes into town dropping millions of dollars to help his Colorado Super Tuesday plan, it’s worth remembering back when regular people could run for office. I mean, run and actually win.
In 1998 state Treasurer Bill Owens was running for governor. The media got hold of a clip of his young son answering a drive-by question about life in the Owens household. The kid said something to the effect that, yes, in fact, dad does take them out to restaurants every now and then but won’t let them order sodas. What an ogre.
His opponents hoped it would portray Owens as a cheapskate. What it did was show him as a relatable, regular middle-class guy trying to make ends meet and still afford a few niceties for his family, like dinner out.
Before being a full-time government employee as treasurer, Owens had a middle-income job in the private sector. Like most everyone in the real world, he didn’t own a business, he just worked for one. But still he was able to work his way to governor.
He was succeeded by Bill Ritter who worked for government since he graduated college. As Seinfeld would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Ritter was then succeeded by millionaire John Hickenlooper, who was succeeded by multimillionaire Jared Polis, who was one of the wealthiest members of Congress.
I wonder if we will ever see a Colorado governor, or U.S. president for that matter, who made his living the way most of us do, working for other people for a simple paycheck. Even Bernie Sanders is a millionaire now.
Bloomberg and Jared Polis remind us of the new post-campaign contribution limits reality. High public office is more and more a bauble for the wealthy. Hey, some rich guys buy baseball teams. So why not buy an office?
At least the average Joe might still get on the school board. Well, maybe. Polis’s history serves to bookend the tale of buying elections in Colorado, small to biggest.
In 2000 Polis ran for the state Board of Education. Previous to his run no one had a campaign war chest for this small office of more than around $10,000. And that came mostly from contributors, not the candidate. Jared self-funded $1.3 million and even with that he just barely won the seat by 90 votes of some 1.6 million votes cast.
If Jared was a normal working guy, his political career would never have gotten off the ground. He’d still be working for a paycheck today, like you.
In 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 he self-funded his victories to the U.S. Congress.
He also spent his money on pet citizen initiatives. In 2000 he bankrolled Amendment 23 which put k-12 education spending in Colorado on autopilot, wreaking budgetary havoc when the economy took a downturn in 2008.
In 2006 he was the largest contributor to Amendment 41, the “ethics” law, which made it difficult to buy a government worker a cup of coffee and created the lopsided Independent Ethics Commission.
And in 2014 he paid to put a fracking ban on the ballot before pulling it off the ballot.
And rumors are that this year, he’ll spend millions of his own cash to beat up smokers even more with a cigarette tax hike initiative.
In 2018 he spent a mind-boggling $23 million of his own cash to become governor.
For comparison, when running for governor in 1998, Bill Owens broke fundraising records by bringing in about $1 million. Adjusted for inflation, that would have been only $1.5 million for Jared’s race.
Jared’s gift from himself to himself wasn’t just to himself. His self-funded governor’s run meant other deep-pocketed progressives didn’t have to fund him, allowing their money to flow toward other progressives’ efforts and candidates, helping them sweep to total control of Colorado.
Campaign finance laws on the federal and state level have been pushed by the left to “get big money out of politics.” On the federal level it was McCain-Feingold. In Colorado, it was Amendment 27. Both had predictable outcomes.
Big money in politics has multiplied, over 15-fold in the governor’s race alone. And since limits don’t apply to self-funders, high office is a rich man’s toy.
Welcome to Colorado, Mr. Bloomberg. We’re your plaything.
Jon Caldara is president of the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.
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