Playing Santa on Our Dime
By: Michael R. Shannon
One does not have to go to Washington to become an out–of–touch politician and it’s not required to be a Democrat. Local Republicans can lose their way quite nicely without all the bother of traveling to D.C.
This summer, in Prince William County, VA, Jeanine Lawson ran a spirited challenge in the Republican primary against two–term incumbent Wally Covington for the Brentsville Supervisor’s seat.
Lawson was outspent by two–to–one — typical when you’re running against an incumbent — but what she lacked in revenue, she made up for in motivation.
But on election night all Lawson’s hope and effort came crashing down when she lost by a razor–thin 159 votes.
Incumbent politicians react to a closer–than–expected victory like this in one of two ways: The near–death experience causes them to reevaluate their career and make substantial changes in their political behavior to more closely mirror what the voters expect.
Or they consider themselves bulletproof and liberated from the petty concerns of annoying constituents.
It looks like Supervisor Covington has become liberated.
Since the election, Covington has single–handedly created two issues involving conflicts of interest and misuse of taxpayer dollars that would have given Lawson victory in the primary, if only the issues had surfaced about five months earlier.
Here’s the background: each supervisor has an office budget of between $322,000 and $350,000. The bulk goes to staff and office overhead. Unspent money is carried over and added to the supervisor’s budget next year.
Even local Republicans keep the unspent money because it’s taxpayer dollars, which everyone knows are free. I’m sure Tea party–types demand to know why next year’s budget is not reduced by the carryover amount, but who cares what they think? When’s the last time a Tea partier went through the free food line at Zuccotti Park?
Supervisors who want to donate our money to their worthy cause go through a two–step process, rather than just throwing dollar bills off a Christmas parade float. At the weekly board meeting they announce their intent to donate and the next week the board approves the donation.
This gives the appearance of checks and balances without the reality of any restraint. It’s the political equivalent of the point in a marriage ceremony where the pastor proclaims, “If any of you has reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
So what’s the problem with politicians giving our money to a worthy cause and then feeling good about themselves?
Simple, they often use your money to build up political chits to cash in during the next campaign. Incumbents may list their abundant compassion on their campaign website to show how much they care about the community. Often they get a spot at the head table during an organization’s main fund–raising banquet and are introduced to the attendees. Members of the organization’s board may endorse the politician during the campaign.
It’s how one hand washes the other, with the taxpayers buying the soap.
The organization likes it because it’s more efficient to get large checks from a politician who needs political support, rather than making your charity’s case to some tightfisted taxpayer who probably wants to spend the money on pay–per–view MMA bouts.
Which brings us why Wally Covington’s proposed donation doesn’t pass the smell test.
Covington had already given $10,000 – the largest contribution of 2011 by any member of the board of supervisors – to something called the Healthy Youth Council. In turn, these aerobic youngsters spent PWC taxpayer’s money on a conference in Blacksburg, VA, which is 237 miles outside Covington’s district, because evidently every restaurant, meeting hall, bingo parlor and convention center in Prince William was booked up that October weekend.
Covington, however, is not a man to let something as tacky as geography stand in the way of his beneficence.
Just a bit over a month later, he announces he intends to donate $100,000 in district funds to the Rainbow Therapeutic Equestrian Center for its capital campaign.
Where does one begin? First the amount is ten times the record Covington set when he gave local tax dollars to Blacksburg’s meeting and convention industry. Second, the equestrian center is once again not located in his Brentsville district. And finally, Covington’s wife, Connie, is president of the center’s board of directors.
Of course Covington assures us there is absolutely no conflict of interest in this donation because his wife is not a paid member of the equestrian center’s staff.
The only way Covington could have improved on the spectacle of this donation would have been to invite noted Virginia horse fanciers and White House dinner crashers Michaele and Tareq Salahi to the check presentation ceremony.
This is contempt for the voters that is Pelosian in intensity.
Finally, it’s always amusing to hear “progressives” and other statists claim that the solution to our political woes is public campaign finance. When it’s obvious this discretionary funds saga proves we already have a partial system of taxpayer campaign finance, but the only candidates allowed to take advantage are incumbents.
Michael R. Shannon is a public relations and advertising consultant with corporate, government and political experience around the globe. He is a dynamic and entertaining keynote speaker. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.