By Ken Krayeske • 10:50 PM EST
What is the exact amount of money that will corrupt a person? $100? $200? $10,000?
That's what State Representative Corky Mazurek wants to know. Mazurek, a three term Democrat incumbent in the 80th district in Wolcott and Southington, won a heated August primary over challenger Karen Houghtaling by about 70 votes.
Mazurek's primary victory produced one of the first bumps in the road for the new campaign finance law, bumps which the Elections Enforcement Commission is determined to smooth out by the time the 2010 election cycle rolls around.
Mazurek, who voted against the clean elections bill back in 2005, participated in the program during the primary, and was the recipient of a contested series of mailings by the Realtors PAC, worth about $10,000.
Houghtaling's campaign manager Phil Sherwood wonders exactly how many of those 70 votes came from that mailer.
Sherwood wanted the Realtors PAC's independent mailer to trigger matching funds. He claims the Elections Enforcement Commission interpreted the law as saying that positive pieces don't merit matching funds, only hit pieces do. He calls it a loophole that needs fixing.
"What is alarming is that you could drive a truck through it," Sherwood said. "We were shocked. Because it wasn't a hit piece, a negative piece attacking Karen, we didn't get matching funds. This undermines the spirit of public financing."
Mazurek doesn't see it that way.
"I don't see it as a loophole," Mazurek said. "Some of that needs to be fleshed out just a little bit."
It may not be quite so black and white, warns Beth Rotman, the Director of Public Financing at the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission. The five-member Commission has ruled on only three independent expenditures, starting this year.
Houghtaling's piece is one of those three. Rotman said that Houghtaling's campaign originally claimed the Realtors PAC piece was a coordinated expenditure, a categorization in the law that could trigger criminal penalties.
The Commission met, interviewed Mazurek and the Realtors PAC, and saw no "significant indicia" of coordination, Rotman said.
"I guess what I caution on is not overreading what the Commission has said," Rotman said. "The Commission has never come out and said go forth and write positive pieces and things won't be matched."
Nor did the Commission find language in any of the three mailers it saw this year, including one for Marie Kirkley-Bey, that reached the clean election standard of independent expenditures to not "promote the defeat of a candidate."
But when I root for the Yankees, it necessarily means I want the Red Sox to lose. The Commission opposes such a broad reading of the law, Rotman said.
"I understand the call for that reading, as it comports with various notions of fairness," Rotman said. "That is one of the things the Commission is looking at."
The Elections Enforcement Commission will hold public hearings on November 19 and December 3 to discuss fixes to the clean elections law.
"We want to take a proactive stance to identify weaknesses and fix anything that will discourage participation," Rotman said. "The Commission never said they have to find specific words, they never said it had to be negative, negative, or it has to be positive."
Yet if the Commission's reading on that stands, hypothetically, in 2010, Governor Rell can sign on to the $3 million in public campaign finance money from the state, and then lobbies like the Connecticut Business and Industry Alliance could spend millions more on mailers telling voters Rell walks on water, and the state would not have to reimburse her opponents.
But I agree with Rotman that three pieces is a small sample to base an opinion on, especially where this is the first time around for the law, and more than 250 candidates are participating in public financing for the first time.
State Senator President Pro Tem Donald Williams said that he was aware of a potential loophole in the law. He promised that he and a committee would explore how to fix it.
Between the Legislature, the Commission, and the record number of candidates bound to produce more bumps in the road, hopefully some tweaking will happen.
Yet despite the record number of candidates, Genghis Conn over at CTLocalPolitics recently reported that 54 candidates - nearly a third of the state House of Representatives - are running unopposed. So it doesn't mean that the law has been great for competition, just yet.
So count me in to testify before the Elections Enforcement Commission, because the hurdles that the campaign finance law throws in the path of third parties are obnoxious, and are subject to another column.
We can add those hurdles to the pre-existing prejudices faced by third party candidates like G. Scott Deshefy, the Green running for Congress in Connecticut's Second District.
As is the standard story, Deshefy organized a crew to collect more than 4,000 petition signatures to reach the ballot, but the League of Women Voters won't consider Deshefy, nor any other petitioning Congressional candidates in Connecticut worthy of debating, according to a Mark Pazniokas Hartford Courant story from September 24.
The League saved Congressman Joe Courtney and his Republican challenger Sean Sullivan from looking like bad guys. Understanding that Deshefy is a federal candidate, and we are talking about a state law, the obstacles against minor parties are still insufferable, especially in the campaign finance law at issue.
And that is the real point of this column: will the campaign finance law level the field for all candidates?
Sherwood, himself a registered lobbyist for the Connecticut Citizens Action Group, says that the under the old system, ordinary citizens couldn't wage competitive campaigns. Houghtaling, a single mom who works two jobs, was an ordinary citizen.
"In any close election, special interests and big money unlevel the playing field," Sherwood said. "There are a dozen or so elections every year in the mix, [lobbyists] have been able to influence the outcome of those competitive races. Under this new system, they will still be able to have that power."
Mazurek maintains that the playing field is level, that lobbyists don't have undue influence and that the campaign finance law should be scrapped because it is a product of reactive law making, a haphazard response to the corruption of ex-con, ex-guv John G. Rowland.
"It is a constitutional right for someone to speak up on behalf of themselves or their organization," Mazurek said. "I think that the campaign finance laws have stomped on the individual rights of lobbyists and businesses to promote their interests."
If the goal was to stomp out corruption, the legislature failed, Mazurek said.
"You and I need to sit down and decide how much money we think is enough money to corrupt any one of us," Mazurek said. "We have to compromise on what we think is a corruptible figure. And then at that point no one can make a donation more than this amount.
"Everyone has a vested interest in politics in the state of Connecticut," Mazurek continued. "If they have a vested interest, of course they are going to try to influence it. I think it is up to us to keep the dollar amount low enough to allow people to influence it."