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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Running With His Hands Out

Houston — When Texan Lloyd Doggett, probably the country’s fastest rising state legislator, announced last year his campaign for the U.S. Senate, he began to hear the same response from people he thought were likely supporters. They all expressed admiration for his sterling ten year record of progressive work in the Texas senate, but they did not think he could raise enough money for the expensive and hotly contested Democratic primary.
The big money, they said, would go to Bob Krueger, a former Congressman possessed of close contacts with oil companies and other Texas industries.

Thus began for Doggett the exhausting concentration on campaign money-raising instead of developing the issues and differences that are supposed to be the stuff of political campaigning. Doggett is the quintessence of an issue-oriented politician. He is a leading consumer and environmental advocate, a fighter for the rights of the elderly, the poor and the disabled, and a near fanatic against governmental red ink and waste. But for nearly a year, most of his time has gone to breaking the money barrier so opinion-makers would start taking his positions seriously.

There are, of course, other young candidates for office in our country who find themselves in comparable situations. What is different about Doggett is that he gritted his teeth, raised money and issued the following press release recently:

“Doggett tops million-dollar mark. More than 5,200 contributors have pushed Sen. Lloyd Doggett’s campaign for the U.S. Senate over the million-dollar mark,…Doggett said that reaching the million-dollar mark with large numbers of small contributors shows that Texans are responding to my message…My average contribution is only $129 per individual.” Three days later the Dallas Morning News headlined a story with “Doggett leads in funds, reports show,” noting that he has raised and saved more money than the free-spending Krueger.

So now the prominent issue is joined. Who is ahead in the money race and who is likely to gain the dollar momentum that will turn the other fellow back? There are levels of absurdity and tragedy in the political money sweepstakes behind the obvious one of what strings come attached with donations.

Waking up each morning thinking about who to call and how to make the case to secure contributions can turn even an intelligent fellow like Doggett into dreary putty. Molly Ivins, a popular Texas columnist, called young Doggett “simply the best I’ve seen in 20 years of watching Texas politics. He really does have it all — integrity, brains, skill, integrity, competence, tenacity and integrity.” Yet when I saw Doggett a few weeks ago in Washington, he was on a frantic fund raising trip and could think and breath virtually nothing else. He invited pathos.

Now that he is half a length ahead in the campaign derby with Krueger, and Doggett’s campaign office offers the public a regularly updated chart showing his monthly dollar inflow, will he be permitted to focus on policies and the weighing of political records?

Not likely. For stage two has arrived and the big question now is: Where will the high rollers place their bets and to what dollar amount will they hedge? After all, Doggett may be too promising for the more demanding political action committees and the large donors to ignore. The candidates will be tempted to bid for this money with promises made publicly or quietly, to their benefactors. And how much money is enough when no matter how much a candidate raises, the sums become relatively insufficient as their opponents’ treasuries swell?

I have before me the three major handouts by the Doggett-For-Senate campaign. They itemized in detail what Doggett has done as State Senator — he is a remarkable doer — and what he wants to do in Washington. Nowhere is there any mention of urging campaign finance reform or any changes what a Californian legislator, Jesse Unruh, once called “the mother’s milk of politics.”

The papers report that Doggett is rapidly catching up with frontrunner Krueger; one political observer calls his rise in the past month “spectacular”. But even a Doggett is finding it impossible to apply his creative mind to the state of Texas as long as he has to keep his hands open every day for contributions. The distasteful search for money, even comparatively clean campaign money in small denominations, displaces the drive to mobilize voters against the auctioning of candidates for public office. Only citizens are free to launch that inevitable rebellion.