February 23, 1998

Campaign Bill Backer Clings to Hope

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    SUPERIOR, Wis. -- Whether from mercy, maturity or wintry ennui, the constituents of Senator Russell D. Feingold never once mentioned Monica S. Lewinsky this week as the Senator made his regular rounds to hear what is on their minds. The lawmaker seemed grateful for that small favor.

    "Talk about whatever you want," the Senator invited as he carefully refrained from prompting the people despite his rather urgent curiosity about one issue in particular -- campaign finance change, a subject dear to his Washington agenda and his own re-election chances this year.

    The issue, which bears his signature concern in the form of the McCain-Feingold bill due for Senate debate on Monday, did come up, but with none of the popular passion that the freshman Democratic Senator was suddenly encountering on the subject of bombing Iraq. That issue came up 19 times in three 90-minute meetings scattered hundreds of miles across the northwest corner of the state, as teen-aged students and graybeards from the Vietnam protest days came forward to warn that innocent people would die in Washington's frustration with Saddam Hussein.

    Campaign finance change came up seven times, but usually in terse, laconic allusions as people moved on to more involving subjects like Social Security and education aid. "Don't you give up now on that," Jim McDonald briefly counseled about campaign spending, speaking up in a gathering of 50 people down in Burnett County.

    The Senator heartily responded, "I will not give up." But he took care to note that the issue was not dead even if some people think it is, and even if a year of Capitol Hill hearings failed to give much populist lift to his proposals for reining in big-money politics.

    "When I went into politics, nobody said I had to have $10 million to run," he cautioned eager student council members of the entry price these days for political idealism.

    As he roams his state, the Senator evinces a certain air of fatalism about campaign spending, for he already is involved in one of this year's more unusual re-election drives in pledging to spend no more than $1 a voter, or $3.8 million, a pittance on the statewide scale of modern incumbent spending.

    "I've just decided I think we can win this way and it's more fun this way," said Feingold, facing a firm challenge from his likely Republican opponent, Representative Mark Neumann, who is already attacking the Senator on his perceived strength, the campaign finance issue. "It's essential I show the people I actually mean this," added the Senator, who was outspent 3-to-1 in his upset victory of 1992 that cost $2 million.

    As he searched the state for encouragement, the Senator held a listening session last night in the small lake town of Siren, where Paul Heinrich politely spent his three-minute speaking time on a warning against a military attack on Iraq. Then, as an aside, Heinrich seemed to summarize popular doubts about politicians ever dealing with their own campaign excesses when he added, "Why don't we just hang a banner over the White House proclaiming, 'The Best Government That Money Can Buy'?"

    At such stinging putdowns of politicians, Senator Feingold professes to be optimistic, not pessimistic, about the Monday debate. "I can't say it's the first thing on everybody's mind," the Senator said, summarizing listening sessions he has had in 30 different counties since Jan. 1. "But there is strong enthusiasm. People are plainly saying: 'Hey, clean up your act. Why should we have to worry about this nonsense?'  "

    Whether his optimism is justified remains to be seen back in Washington where, after five years in the Senate, Feingold has come to see his most difficult opponents on this issue not so much the Republicans arrayed firmly against change as what he terms "the Washington Gatekeepers."

    "They are lobbyists who make the decisions about who gets the big campaign money," he said in an interview as he traveled between meetings through the frozen lake country. "They transfer the money to the politicians and produce the legislative votes that go with it. They're like an investment firm and they would lose power under our bill."

    The Senator has to admit that his own party leader, President Clinton, has been a mixed blessing on the subject of campaign finance as he endorses the issue but continues to assiduously work the big-money circuit that fueled accusations of campaign financing violations. "It's not always been helpful that the President has chosen to be so aggressive about his fund-raising," Feingold said.

    He marks progress in the simple fact that a Senate vote will be taken on the issue next week, despite most incumbents' wariness of change. The bill he has proposed with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, is a mere first step, the Senator says. Win or lose, he predicts "a disgusting display of corruption" in the coming Congressional and Presidential races to inevitably drive the overhaul campaign further.

    In the meantime, the Senator is promising to set a far different example in his own re-election campaign. With Representative Neumann vowing no less vehemently to limit his financing this year, the Wisconsin Senate contest could prove an eye-catching exception in the big- money political culture that Feingold will be attacking on Monday in the Senate.

    "I'm being hammered already," he said, noting he had to survive an intense three-month effort at a recall petition last year by anti-abortion political organizations. This week, he was being criticized in advertisements by the nuclear energy industry because he has questioned the safety of a proposal to ship nuclear wastes from Wisconsin to Nevada.

    Such special-interest issue advertising is well beyond the control of any current political accounting system, and the temptation in a close race might prove strong to exceed self-imposed limits and buy extra television advertising. "I absolutely will not yield," Senator Feingold said, insisting that his most effective antidote to the power of TV campaign money will be the mundane contact he has made with constituents through his listening sessions -- one every year to each of the state's 72 counties.

    "Ultimately, I rely on word of mouth," Feingold said. "If I can't win this way, working at 420 listening sessions, it wasn't meant to be."

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