Case Study: Congressman Jason Altmire

Office:  U.S. House, PA 4

Elections:  2006, 2008, 2010, 2012

by Frank Kirkwood

In 2005, I created a website called CleanElectionsPA.org.  The purpose was to gather and post candidates’ statements about publicly funded elections.  I contacted all candidates for the Pennsylvania Legislature and Governor in the 2006 elections, as well as U.S. House candidates in Pennsylvania.  I asked them to make a statement about publicly funded elections, in favor or against, and I then posted their statements on-line.

Among those candidates was Jason Altmire of the 4th Congressional District, where I lived at the time.  He and several other Democrats were seeking to challenge Melissa Hart, the Republican incumbent.  Altmire sent me a favorable statement about publicly funded elections and I posted it.  At a public forum, I challenged all of the Democratic candidates to address the issue.  Altmire spoke with passion and conviction, saying that if there was one thing he would fix in Washington, it was the money-in-politics problem.  Altmire won the primary.

Between the primary and general elections, Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Public Citizen, put up a website calling for candidates to take the “Voters First” Pledge, a pledge asking candidates to state their support for publicly funded elections and other reforms.  Altmire agreed to sign it.  He also stated his support for publicly funded elections in Project Vote Smart’s 2006 “Congressional National Political Awareness Test”.

Publicly funded elections became something of an issue in the heavily contested general election campaign.  Hart ran radio ads criticizing Altmire’s support for it.  Altmire won.

After the election, in an article about business self-interests eagerly giving money to Altmire and other newly-elected member of Congress, he was quoted as saying, “I’d support and work hard to pass any bill that takes money out of politics”.

He signed the “Voter’s First” Pledge again, ahead of his re-election bid in 2008.

He never signed on as a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act during his three terms.  By 2011, he was one of only 10 Democrats in the House to vote to terminate public financing of presidential election campaigns.

His district had been heavily re-drawn and re-numbered (now the 12th) ahead of the 2012 election.  He lost the primary in 2012 in a low-turnout election dominated by union voters, a group Altmire had antagonized over the years.  The district went Republican in the general election.

LESSONS LEARNED

Having been “full cycle” with this candidate on this issue, I have to say the Altmire played the situation pretty well.  He is a politician and, as such, brings a significant amount of self-advancement and self-preservation to his interactions with reformers.

Altmire’s support of reform was beneficial to his efforts to win his first election.  Once he became an incumbent, he was in a much better position to generate payments to his re-election campaign. There was no political cost to him for his failure to actually support reform as promised or for his vote to end public funding on the Presidential level.  I would like to think that his primary loss in 2012 was, in part, due to his reneging on reform, but it was not.  Altmire and his opponent were both well-funded, re-districted incumbents.  Neither candidate was in a position to attack the other on the money-in-politics issue.

In the end, Altmire got what he wanted from reformers (our support) and reformers got very little.  We did get him to state his support for reform, to us, but not to the broader public. He used the CleanElectionsPa website and the “Voter’s First” Pledge website to tell reformers what we wanted to hear.  He never posted support for publicly funded elections on his campaign or official Congressional websites.

Reformers need to use politicians as politicians use us – to advance our cause.  As discussed in “Our Political Revolution“, we should insist that those candidates who want our support must show support for our cause in a public and meaningful way.

If you have had interactions with your legislators about money-in-politics issues and would like to share them, please send them to TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com.

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