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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1999

    Southern Campaigns
    By Chris Roberts
    The State, Columbia, S.C.


    COLUMBIA, S.C. ­ No, Confederate money won't buy TV time for a politician in the South that I cover. But when it comes to following the greenbacks spent on political campaigns, we're fighting governments who hold 19th-century mindsets.

    Also like the Confederacy, we're fighting a civil war we can't win. Campaign finance laws are entrenched against complete disclosure, making it difficult and sometimes impossible to tell readers who's supplying the politicians.

    In June 1998, I became database editor of The State newspaper, the Knight Ridder paper in South Carolina's capitol. My previous employer was The Birmingham News, the Newhouse paper in Alabamašs largest city, where I handled much of the campaign finance reporting between 1993 and mid-1998.

    Alabama and South Carolina have two things in common: Neither requires political candidates or political-action committees to file financial reports in electronic format. Both have financial disclosure laws poked with holes wider than the one Sherman burned from Atlanta to Savannah.

    Our philosophy for campaign finance reporting follows Robert E. Leešs strategy: Pick your ground so your numerically inferior resources can achieve maximum effectiveness.

    It's a tough battle. We can't build a database with details on every candidate and every race and every political-action committee. We can't figure out who every donor is. We can't get there first with the most, much less do every story that needs to be done. It's impossible to devote as much time to campaign finance as we'd like because other stories and duties beckon. (If you work for a small- or medium-circulation paper, you're nodding your head in understanding right about now.)

    Still, we do our best.

    Here are some stories and lessons gleaned from the front lines during the 1990s:

    Alabama Politicos Disclose Little
    The Heart of Dixie's campaign finance law has a heart of darkness. If you know what youšre doing, you can use PAC-to-PAC transfers to anonymously give as much as you want to a specific candidate.

    State law requires candidates to detail receipts and expenditures but only on paper and just once in non-election years. Donors don't have to reveal occupations. Lawmakers canšt accept money during a legislative session, but that rule is basically waived during an election year.

    What worked in our favor was newspaper managers who understood the importance of following the money and a few bureaucrats who appreciated what we tried to do.

    On a campaign finance disclosure day, a few News reporters converged on the Secretary of State's office in Montgomery. One took care of statewide races; the other handled local House and Senate candidates. Helpful workers in the Secretary of Statešs office would even fax stuff to the newsroom; other reports would ride with a reporter up Interstate 65.

    As the gubernatorial data arrived, a collection of typists (sometimes part-timers, sometimes workers from a temp agency) keyed the highlights into a spreadsheet.

    When we were an afternoon paper (until August 1996), we'd list each $250-and-up contributor to the governor's race in the next day's paper. It meant working all night to type, compile and proof the hundreds of inches of agate, but readers appreciated the fruit of our sleepless night.

    In addition to daily stories, we listed givers alphabetically, by amount. We began to believe that people who donated oddball amounts (such as $505 instead of a standard $500) just wanted their names to stand out in the agate.

    Days later, inside our zoned neighborhood sections, we'd write stories and run lists involving local House and Senate races. The expanded neighborhood sections have the space necessary to run those dozens of lists, and they give readers information they couldn't get anywhere else.

    By design or by default, we chose to concentrate our database work on the governor's race. The database now holds every $250-and-up gift to every gubernatorial candidate since 1990 ­ useful for seeing who supported whom when and who's favored in the good-ol-boy network now.

    Poker and Politics in South Carolina
    When deciding to leave Birmingham for Columbia, the next-to-last thing on my mind was the state's campaign finance law. (The last thing, of course, was the nasty mustard-based barbecue served here instead of my beloved tomato-based barbecue.)

    South Carolina tightened its ethics law in the early 1990s, thanks to a nasty bribery scandal involving state legislators. The new law's highlights include restrictions on lobbyists and a $3,500-per-race contribution limit.

    The tiger has some teeth missing. Campaigns file paper reports, and the State Ethics Commission charges 20 cents a copy. We spend hundreds of dollars on public records before spending money and time to enter data into our computers.

    But even spending all that time and money on finance reports didn't tell us much about the biggest story of the year ­ the arrival of the video poker industry into state politics.

    Video poker companies, nearly all based in the state, operate 30,000 machines slapped in nearly every gas station, bar, restaurant and flat spot in the state.

    It's not too strong to say the poker industry hates the guts of incumbent Gov. David Beasley. The Republican called video poker a "cancer" on the state, and his minions were careful to always use the term "organized gambling˛"so we'd think "organized crime."

    The cancer fought back, ultimately killing Beasley. Poker interests spent heavily on Democrat Jim Hodges or on anti-Beasley efforts, and Hodges won on Election Day.

    How much money did the poker industry spend? Wešll never know, because:

    Poker people ran their own anti-Beasley campaigns. State law isn't clear if they must disclose how much they spent, and poker people have no intention of saying. (The First Amendment is for everyone, after all.)

    State law doesn't require givers to include their occupation on disclosure reports. That made it impossible to prove a link between a giver and gambling interests. (Example: If the contributor happens to own a convenience store with poker machines, does that mean it's poker money?)

    Our solution was to call hundreds of contributors we identified as first-time givers. We point-blank asked them if they had poker connections. We rarely got a straight answer from the hundreds of people we called. Our story essentially said: "Boy, there are a lot of first-time givers. And, boy, lots of them appear to have ties to video poker."

    We also ran into a question of fairness and resources: By spending all our time concentrating on video poker and Hodges, how do you keep from ignoring all the money raised by the incumbent? It's easy to focus on poker because it's new and controversial and ignore all the old, familiar cast of characters who always spend big. We struggled with that concern throughout our coverage.

    State law doesn't force state political parties to disclose money on statewide, non-federal races. Gambling interests funneled money through the Democratic party, and Republicans played similar games.

    That hide-the-money trick turned into a page-one story just before the election. Two paragraphs say it all:

    Ask state Democratic Party chairman Dick Harpootlian how much his party has spent on ads attacking Gov. David Beasley, and youšll get a straight answer: None of your business.

    "You can't follow the money in South Carolina," he said.

    Lessons for Smaller Newspapers
    If you're a small-to-medium paper hoping to follow the money, here are some tips to help you fight the battle:

    Donšt let the magnitude become overwhelming. Choose what you can do, master that, and then try something fancier.

    Don't think every story has to be an opus. Dribbing lots of smaller stories keeps the issue before voters (and fills the newshole).

    At least keep up with grand totals if you canšt capture the individual receipts and expenditures.

    Find fun ways to show readers how money is the mother's milk.

    My favorite Election Day story is to visit all the television and radio stations in your market to add up the money and time each candidate spent. (In the Columbia market, candidates spent $3 million to buy 11 days, 18 hours of commercials between August and Election Day. My definition of hell involves having to watch them all.)

    Use what's already out there, particularly for federal elections. A collection of wonderful Web sites makes it easy.

    If you can, team up with others. Is there a cooperative agreement you can form with other media? Does your nearby university have political science students who can turn this into a project?

    Ask campaigns to provide their data in electronic format. Nearly every campaign uses computers to maintain the database, and enlightenened campaigns are willing to give you a diskette.

    This "enlightened campaign" is pure theory. In my time covering Alabama elections, we asked but never received data in electronic format. At The State in South Carolina, the editorial board asked for floppies before I arrived. They were successful early on, but campaigns stopped delivering floppies after the editorial board starting hammering the candidates.

    Use all resources available to identify the givers. Use phone books, city and business directories, people you can trust, etc.

    Write stories that people understand. My favorite is to divide money spent into votes received. (As I noted in an Alabama election, one Republican spent $300,000 but received 3,000 votes. At $100-a-vote, we noted, hešd have been better off taking all his supporters out for a nice dinner.)

    Realize that you can't always be precise. We would love to have written a story stating an exact percentage of Hodges' money came from gambling, but we didn't think it could be done with enough reliability.

    The State never published a story with an estimate of how much money poker spent directly or indirectly. We never felt confident enough, even after living with the race for months. (USA Today, however, did a story in January that included an estimated grand total.)

    Make sure readers understand your limitations. The public needs to understand that campaign finance laws aren't always written with public disclosure in mind.

    Chris Roberts can be reached at (803) 771-8595 or by e-mail at mcroberts@thestate.com