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COLUMN: No Rival, but wads of money

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By David Giuliani

A few days ago, one of our honorable state senators, Phil Griego, D-San Jose, was on the radio and he warned people about those in the merchant class in the Plaza area.

He said they were newcomers and that they wanted to change Las Vegas into a Santa Fe or a Taos. (And he said the Optic was 90 percent wrong in its stories, but that’s a subject for another day.) Actually, newcomers make up a lot of the business owners in the Plaza area, but there are many natives who own shops there as well.

Who wants to turn Las Vegas into a Santa Fe or a Taos? I hope no one does. If some do, they’re in a small minority.

Because Griego is such a hometown guy, I would assume that he’s got tremendous support in his Senate district. And he does. In fact, he wins handily every time.

But if you look at his campaign finance records on the Internet, you’ll see an assortment of big businesses, lobbyists and lawyers as his contributors.

In the 2008 election, Griego collected $47,920 in contributions. How many of these contributors are from this area? Not one single dollar. His biggest contributor — at $3,000 — in last year’s election was Anheuser-Busch, the beer giant. And that company is nowhere around here. It used to be based in St. Louis, Mo., until a Belgian brewer scooped it up last year.

In 2004, Griego got a whopping $117,505. Of that amount, $2,950 came from area folks — just 2.5 percent of the total.

In 2004, Griego easily defeated a Republican opponent, and this last year, he had no challengers whatsoever.

Why did Griego need $47,925 in his war chest in 2008 if he had no opponents? I called Griego, but he didn’t return my messages.

To be fair, Griego is not alone when it comes to attracting only special-interest contributions; incumbents from across the state and from both major political parties collect donations from big business and the politically well-connected.

Regular people don’t want to donate to an unopposed candidate. But plenty of outside special interests love to shower money on a powerful incumbent. They’ll never admit it, but they’re hoping to convince a well-established lawmaker to vote their way.

Griego may not pay any attention to his donors when he makes his decisions. But he and other lawmakers leave themselves open to suspicion when they collect tens of thousands of dollars of contributions from the wealthy, especially when they’re running unopposed.

Griego, to his credit, voted with nearly all the rest of his colleagues for a bill that would limit contributions to nonstatewide candidates to $2,300 per donor. The governor signed the bill last week. That’s a step in the right direction. But $2,300 is still a huge contribution. Griego got only one contribution over that amount in 2008 — the one from the beer company.

From his contributions last year, Griego has already spent some of it, including $1,700 for a campaign truck’s repairs. I’m not sure why he needed a campaign truck if there was no one to campaign against. He also forked out $370 on a campaign dinner. Again, I’m not sure about that one. He also has contributed generously to other candidates, including Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat who won northern New Mexico’s seat in Congress.

According to his December campaign finance report, Griego has $32,000 left to spend. What’s he going do with all that money? Maybe he could give it to worthy causes that help the poor.

Steve Allen, executive director of Common Cause, a group that pushes for governmental ethics, said Griego and other legislators likely have the best of intentions. But the current system is set up to create public mistrust.

“It’s not good for our democracy or our elected officials,” Allen said. “The way to fix this is to have public financing for all of these races. The problem is that it costs some money, but the benefit to the public is to cut out these private donations.”

He’s right. As it stands, eyebrows are raised with the flood of political money. Griego could help change that.

David Giuliani is managing editor of the Las Vegas Optic. He may be reached at 425-6796 or by e-mail to dgiuliani@lasvegasoptic.com.