My turn: 'Housewives' go wild for speaker of the House

Posted: Tuesday, April 03, 2007

When I was just a young lad, one of the first experiences that totally bewildered me was seeing housewives, about my mother's age, in a fevered pitch throwing their undergarments on the stage during a Tom Jones concert.

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I really haven't seen anything quite like it since. That is, until this past week, when I was going over some of the political contributions to Speaker of the House John Harris from the 2006 campaign season.

Harris may not parade through the halls of the Capitol in tight pants and a shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. But when it comes to having housewives throwing things in his direction, it turns out Harris has one-upped even Tom Jones.

Harris has gotten housewives to throw $500 and $1,000 checks his way to the tune of more than $14,000 dollars.

Now I ask you, who is the real superstar?

Although they are legally listed as only "housewife" on the occupation and employer portion of Harris' campaign contribution report filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission, there is more there than meets the eye. Most notably, had their husbands given the exact same donations themselves, some would have been illegal and others would have attracted added scrutiny and at least a question or two.

That's because Harris' harem of housewives is actually made up of spouses of deep-pocketed husbands who understand the power Harris has to influence legislation. They are the wives of doctors with involvement in political matters, lobbyists who are forbidden to donate to these same candidates, executives and political action committee members.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing actually illegal with these donations because there is a loophole in the disclosure law that allows these wifely gifts.

It is illegal for a lobbyist to give an out-of-district contribution to a legislator. But it's not for their spouse. It is illegal for a corporation to contribute to a candidate, but if the corporation gives a "bonus" to an executive, then they and their spouse can pass it on without any problem as individuals.

If the contribution exceeds $250, the executive would have to list his employer and occupation. His wife, however, can contribute $1,000 and give nothing but "housewife" as an explanation. There would be no way of knowing any connection in the latter instance to any special interest by an unknowing public.

To be fair, Harris is not the only legislator benefiting from this inadequacy in the law.

In the new ethics legislation pending in the House, Harris and many others call for full disclosure. Of course, no one even mentions closing this gaping loophole. It's pretty easy to understand why, too.

Here is what I promise you won't see in the new ethics package: full disclosure of a spouse's connection; elimination of out-of-state contributions to candidates; or more restrictions on out-of-district contributions. All of these things together would clean up much of the problems with the perceived buying of government officials.

Limiting contributions to donors from a legislator's own district would be the simplest and single most effective cure for the unchecked influence of money in the political process.

The system now is broken. Innovative and fresh ideas are scarce in campaigns, and many politicians even avoid debates in their own district. Instead, they use money raised elsewhere to speak for them through sometimes seemingly endless and mindless campaign advertisements.

With a few simple changes to campaign finance laws, the public trust would begin to return and elected officials would have little choice but to do what is best for the people they are supposed to represent. Gone would be the influence of money that turns a legislator's common sense into blind, obedient advocacy for what is usually a bad deal for Alaskans. In turn, the special interests themselves would have to have an idea worthy of consideration and fair to Alaskans if they expect it to become law.

Alaskans deserve no less.

• Myrl Thompson is a Juneau-based freelance journalist from Wasilla and former independent candidate for the state House. He writes a "Capitol Watch" column twice a month for the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

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