Legislative Races Becoming More Expensive, Study Shows

Sunday November 25, 2001

By Paul J. Nyden


It requires more and more money to win a seat in the West Virginia Legislature. Special interests - such as gambling, health-care and coal - continue to play a growing role in financing candidates for all offices.

These are among the conclusions reached by the new "2000 Election Cycle Report" just released by the West Virginia People's Election Reform Coalition.

Working with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Citizen Action Group, the election coalition has developed computer databases for contributions made during the 1996, 1998 and 2000 elections.

Norm Steenstra, who helped coordinate the computer analysis, said, "In comparing the three election cycles, it is clear legislative races are becoming increasingly more expensive.

"Incumbents also store up large war chests. And politicians giving to other politicians is making it increasingly difficult for the average citizen to run for the Legislature."

The typical winning campaign for the state Senate cost 35 percent more last year then it did in 1996. The average winning House campaign cost 46 percent more in 2000.

The race for governor between Cecil Underwood, the incumbent Republican governor, and Bob Wise, a Democratic congressman since 1982, was "significant mainly in its similarities," the coalition report states.

Both Underwood and Wise raised less than $50,000 from people who contributed less than $100 each. Underwood and Wise each raised about $1.9 million from people who gave between $500 and $1,000 each during the primary and general elections.

"However, in the end, it was the candidate [Wise] that raised and spent 10 percent more money that got 3 percent more of the vote," the report states.

The analysis by the People's Election Reform Coalition showed 26 percent of all contributions to candidates who won legislative primary and general elections came from candidates themselves or their family members. These contributions rose by 87 percent between 1996 and 2000.

The five largest business interests contributing to lawmakers were: health care (10 percent); gambling and coal (6 percent each); and real estate and construction (4 percent). Other business interests accounted for 24 percent of all legislative contributions.

Labor union members and their political action committees gave 8 percent. Lawyers, including both corporate lawyers and trial lawyers, also gave 8 percent.

Steenstra said, "Labor and the trial lawyers tend to be on one side. But some special interest groups hedge their bets and give to both sides. Coal, gambling and road construction gave to both Cecil Underwood and Bob Wise. Coal actually gave more to Bob Wise for his inaugural festivities than they gave during his campaign."

In the end, Wise received $2.9 million in contributions, or $8.97 per vote he received in November 2000. Underwood raised $2.6 million, or $8.62 per vote he received. Wise beat Underwood 324,882 to 305,926, or 50 percent to 47 percent of the total vote.

The other three percent was split among Denise Giardina of the Mountain Party (2 percent); Bob Myers of the Libertarian Party (1 percent); Randall Ashelman of the Natural Law Party; and Lou Davis of the Reform Party.

In 2000, less than one-half of 1 percent of all West Virginians of voting age made political contributions.

The new election coalition report also revealed that Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Robert Kiss, D-Raleigh, each raised the most money in their respective houses. Tomblin raised $205,319 and Kiss, $180,059.

Eight other legislative candidates raised between $89,490 and $203,065, including five candidates in Kanawha County and two in Monongalia County.

Delegate Mark Hunt, D-Kanawha, raised $203,065 in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Sen. Vic Sprouse, D-Kanawha, who raised $162,146.

Republican Bill Nelson raised $100,265 in his run for the House of Delegates from Kanawha County. He lost.

Delegates Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, and Sheirl Fletcher, R-Monongalia, each raised about $90,000 for their race in a four-seat House district in their county. Both won.

The coalition's analysis also showed that the top 10 individual contributors to legislative winners included eight gambling executives.

All eight were owners of one of West Virginia's four legal tracks and video lottery centers including: Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center in Cross Lanes, Wheeling Downs in Wheeling, Mountaineer Race Track and Gaming Resort in Chester and the Charles Town Races in Charles Town. Other coalition findings included:

The four political action committees spending the most were: Bankers PAC, $71,100; West Virginia LAWPAC (West Virginia Trial Lawyers), $68,000; WVEA-PAC (West Virginia Education Association), $62,700; and HOSPAC (West Virginia Hospital Association), $60,000.

Sen. Jon Blair Hunter, D-Monongalia, received 14 percent of his contributions from donors who gave less than $100 each. No other Senate candidates raised more than 4 percent of their donations from small contributors.

In House of Delegates races, the top three candidates receiving small donations were: Delegates John Overington, R-Berkley; Bonnie Brown, D-Kanawha; and Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha.

Several candidates have money left over that they can use in the next elections. The top two legislators with surpluses are Tomblin, with $188,016 in unspent contributions, and Kiss, with $122,725. Sens. Mike Ross, D-Randolph, and William Sharpe, D-Lewis, have surpluses of $38,210 and $34,104, respectively.

The report identified candidates with the most contributions from a coalition of what it labeled "progressive interests," including labor unions, environmental groups and trial lawyers.

Hunter received $33,038 from this coalition, representing 57 percent of his total contributions. Sen. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, received 21 percent of his contributions from these groups, accounting for 21 percent of his contributions.

In the House of Delegates, the top four candidates receiving money from these groups were: Delegates Fleischauer, $40,340; Webster, $15,525; Warren R. McGraw II, D-Raleigh, $15,250; and Mike Caputo, D-Marion, $14,810.

Julie Archer, a research analyst for Citizen Action Group, said candidates who receive a significant amount of their money from these "progressive groups" are relatively few.

"Most successful candidates for the state Senate and House of Delegates receive most of their money from large business interests.

"Our concern is that the Legislature is becoming a legislature of the privileged. It is time to examine 'clean money' election alternatives like those recently passed in Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont," Archer said.

Those states provide public financing to candidates who decline to accept money from special interest groups. Those programs are funded from a variety of sources, including taxes on lobbyists, fines collected from people who violate laws and voluntary income tax check-offs from individual taxpayers.

It took the People's Election Reform Coalition nearly a year to complete its analysis of the 2000 elections, Steenstra said.

"The final campaign reports were not filed until January of this year. We went over 1,500 different reports to identify special interest groups associated with contributions."

Steenstra said the election coalition listed donations to all statewide races, including those for the state Supreme Court, as well as all legislative races, including winners of the May 2000 primary elections.

The coalition's report urges the state to keep a closer watch on lobbyist expenditures in the future.

"After candidates are elected, lobbyists begin the flow of money and perks to our lawmakers. How much special interest money is being spent by special interests to influence our laws?

"Lobbyists have to report direct contributions and 'entertainment' given to candidates, but full disclosure by their employers on how much they are paid to wine and dine out representatives would give us the bigger pictures. Other states, such as Maryland, require this. Why not West Virginia," the report asks.

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