SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Will Democrats' Donors Change?
One unintended outcome of the investigations and accusations aimed at House Speaker Jim Black could be a major shift in Democratic fundraising in North Carolina.
Black's success as a rainmaker for House Democrats was based in part in his reliance on some non-traditional donors.
That same reliance -- whether on video poker operators or check-cashing firms -- is partly why the Mecklenburg Democrat faces his current dilemma. When groups who aren't traditional donors suddenly start flooding lawmakers' campaign coffers, and those same groups later benefit from legislative votes, people begin talking.
Traditional donors -- be they bankers, execs at state-regulated utilities or trial lawyers -- have established long histories of campaign giving. Sure, they lobbying lawmakers about legislation and potential legislation every year.
But because traditional donor activity doesn't vary a whole lot from year to year, no eyebrows are raised about legislation that affects such donors. No one sees a connection between vote and donation. Rather, for those donors, it becomes more about establishing and maintaining relationships with lawmakers and the power structure.
The problem for Democrats is that many traditional donors tend to have Republican sympathies or, at the very least, are pro-business moderates who spread donations among both parties. Typically, among business-related donors, dollars flow to expected winners and those who hold power.
While Democratic leaders like Black have tapped traditional, pro-business donors for campaign money, the moderate bent of the state's electorate makes some Democrats a bit queasy about reaching out to the more liberal groups that fall into the category.
Specifically, union political action committees have never been a big part of political donor pool in North Carolina.
Of course, unions' less-than-robust political activity probably has as much to do with their decision-making as with the politicians.
Given North Carolina's right-to-work history and marginal acceptance of unions, the state has hardly been viewed as a place where organized labor was going to make any significant gains.
There is evidence that the situation is starting to change.
In 2004, the political action committee of the Service Employees International Union pumped $1.4 million into state legislative races.
More recently, the SEIU PAC handed over a $100,000 donation to the House Democratic caucus, money that was especially welcome given the group's fund-raising problems in the wake of the Black scandal.
Does this really signal a marked shift in how North Carolina Democrats raise campaign dollars? It's probably too early to tell.
Clearly, the risk for Democrats cozying up to unions is that they can be portrayed by Republicans as outside-the-mainstream liberals. And becoming more reliant on union money may in fact lead to a gradual shift in the ideological position of the party.
On the other hand, the state's changing demographics and the possibility of a political shift nationally may make North Carolina politicians of all stripes less wary of keeping unions at arm's length.
It's a story that will probably take another decade to play out.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at smooneyh@ ncinsider.com
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