Years ago I saw a documentary about the life of Lyndon Johnson. It seems that when he ran for the Senate the first time, he refused to pay off the political machines in different parts of Texas, and he paid for it in the end by losing a close race. The next time around, Johnson spread the bills around, making sure that every local political boss was on his side. He won the election, but they say he was haunted for the rest of his life by a sense of his political illegitimacy; he had cheated, and he knew it.
This morning I read a rather refreshing article in the Los Angeles Times about the practice of dispensing “street money” in Philadelphia and other cities crucial to winning the Pennsylvania primary.
Flush with payments from well-funded campaigns, the ward leaders and Democratic Party bosses typically spread out the cash in the days before the election, handing $10, $20 and $50 bills to the foot soldiers and loyalists who make up the party’s workforce.
There is a time-honored tradition of paying to get out the vote: local party leaders send out the vans to round up voters, such as the homeless. And these leaders expect to be paid for their efforts. The article cites as an example Jon Corzine’s campaign for New Jersey governor, during which people “poured in” from out of state to get out the vote; they were paid $75 apiece. According to the article, the practice is legal, but Obama is refusing to play along. His campaign says they will not be giving out money, as theirs is “an entirely volunteer organization.”
Philadelphia ward leader and Democratic superdelegate Carol Ann Campbell says that Obama would need about $500,000 in street money:
Barack Obama’s campaign doesn’t pay workers, and I guarantee you if they don’t put up some money for those street workers, those leaders will most likely take Clinton money. It won’t stop him from winning Philadelphia, but he won’t come out with the numbers that he needs.
At issue is the ability of political activists in poorer neighborhoods to work without compensation. Upper- and middle-class volunteers can afford to take the day off and round up supporters. Poorer volunteers don’t have that luxury. Obama’s principled stand has earned him some resentment. Volunteers “view it that the white people are getting all the money for TV, and they’re the ones who are the foot soldiers on the street. They’re predominantly African Americans, and they’re not the ones who are getting that TV money.”
Frankly, I’m happy to see Obama take this stand. Much of politics involves using money to “grease the skids,” and street money, legal or not, is part of that system. No, it probably won’t make much of a difference in the long run, but it’s refreshing to see Senator Obama refuse to play the entrenched political game. One Philadelphia politician voiced his disapproval:
It’s our tradition. You don’t come to someone’s house and change the rules of someone’s house. That’s just respect.
But you’ll never make any progress in this country if you’re not afraid to change the rules.