Buying Pols With Cold, Hard Cash

Years ago, in a paroxysm of political idealism, I compared our esteemed United States senators, members of Congress, governor and state legislators with certain women of the evening who paraded Waikiki streets advertising their wares and offering their talents to all who would pay the asking price.

The column came out, as usual, in MidWeek, whereupon I received a call from Pat Saiki, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Dan,” she said, “I’ve been called a lot of things during my political career, but that’s the first time I’ve been called a whore.”

Needless to say, I “er’ed,” I “ah’ed,” I backpedaled. I said, “Congresswoman Saiki, I didn’t mean …”

But of course, I did. Still do. The nation’s politics are awash in individual and special-interest money, and the only money that does qualify as “special interest,” in each of our estimations, is thine or mine.

The federal Campaign Spending Commission rang “ka-ching!” last week and reported that the two Democrats vying for the remaining two years of Dan Inouye’s Senate seat had raised $6 million for their campaigns – $2 million by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, $4 million by appointed U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz.

In the contest to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Hanabusa, six Democrats reported raising a total of $2 million. State Sen.

Donna Mercado Kim and City Councilman Stanley Chang both have pulled in more than half a million dollars, state Sen. Mark Takai and City Councilman Ikaika Anderson $450,000 and $350,000, respectively.

The Democrats alone have thus raised $8 million to spend on two contested federal races, four months out from the Aug. 9 primary election.

How do they do it? They beg: by phone, email, snail mail – whatever. “Beg” is the word. Congress members and senators spend hour upon hour of their time calling major donors in Hawaii or anywhere else they may find a receptive ear connected to a fat pocketbook.

Why do people contribute? Love, there’s some of that. But the overwhelming number don’t give, they invest. They buy access, a hearing for their cause, their “special interest,” thine and mine. The political action committees created by trade associations and unions buy a place at the political table: a hearing with the Congress member or a chance to brief one of his/her staffers.

Now, don’t misunderstand. Elected politicians get their backs up at the mere suggestion that they can be bought.

And we almost all are complicit in the buying and selling – no one more so than those of us in the media. Politicians need that money to hire consultants, to poll their districts and – most of all – to purchase advertising. Each of our causes, thine and mine, should have access, but not necessarily the other guy’s.

Oh sure, we report on it. A segment every election cycle on a 60 Minutes broadcast, a major piece in The Washington Post or The New York Times, and maybe, just maybe, a series of articles titled “The Best Congress Money Can Buy.” But little more.

For every politician who claims to relish “the give and take of debate,” I’ll show you 100 more (including many making the claim) who prefer their television time slick, packaged, on message and produced by their own media team. So they’ll beg and listen for “ka-ching!”