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Campaign cash rules still don’t go far enough

RALEIGH — It’s not uncommon to hear those involved in politics, when the topic of the latest scandal comes up, to refer to the “criminalization of politics.”

Viewing criminal prosecution of politicians and their top aides in that way isn’t difficult when federal prosecutors have a nasty habit of going after politicians of the opposing party.

People in politics also tend to draw distinctions between acts intended to enrich one’s self and those intended to further a political career.

If all is fair in love and war, and politics is a more refined version of war, then doling out key political appointments to big campaign donors and handing out government jobs to supporters can be seen as an expected spoils system.

In that worldview, rigging government contracts or using a political office to extort money is real corruption. The rest is just the grease that makes the machine run.

That view is why some in Raleigh see former House Speaker Jim Black as a sympathetic figure.

Black, 74, was recently released from prison and will be allowed to serve out the last months of his prison term either under house arrest or in a halfway house.

Black pleaded guilty to a charge of accepting cash in a public restroom from a group of chiropractors. Most political insiders believe that cash was intended to keep him at the top of the political heap and not to line his pockets.

Besides being a jovial, charming guy, there’s another reason that Black remains somewhat sympathetic to portions of the Raleigh political crowd. They understand that his political and personal tumble came in part because he was among the first politicians in the state to be responsible for a vast campaign cash kitty.

Before Black’s reign and that of his Republican predecessor in the House, Harold Brubaker, the money required to run for legislature was a fraction of what it is today.

When Black was elected speaker in 1999, the rules to ensure that money didn’t overwhelm the politics and its participants weren’t in place. It was largely the criminal investigations of Black that created the impetus to put rules in place to limit its corrupting influence.

And those rules still aren’t enough.

It’s no coincidence that one of the state’s most spectacular political corruption scandals occurred at the same time of unprecedented money pouring into legislative races.

Even if that money wasn’t about self-enrichment, it had — and continues to have — a corrosive effect.

Black found out the hard way. Before long, his job as House speaker didn’t have much to do with formulating public policy. It had everything to do with raising money, with figuring out ways to keep more Democrats in the state House than Republicans.

How he carried out those job responsibilities was ultimately judged a crime.

If some see that as the criminalization of politics, they miss a more important point: The politics were not in the best interest of either the governed or those governing.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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