‘Pay To Play’ alive and well on Jones Street

When the GOP majority took over the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011, we were promised an end to pay-to-play.  Pay-to-play has typically meant the shakedown of lobbyists and other interested parties for campaign donations in exchange for legislative attention to their concerns. The GOP promise apparently didn’t mean ending the practice of shaking down individual legislators for cash in exchange for committee assignments. The more cash you pony up to your chamber’s leaders and the party —  the better committee assignments you get.  Getting assigned to a key committee with a jurisdiction important to your constituents — or even being named chairman — can make all the difference in how long your stay on Jones Street lasts.

Greensboro-based Yes! Weekly reported on comments by GOP state House candidate Debra Conrad where she talked about how much pressure she was under to pony up money to Speaker Thom Tillis:

Debra Conrad, a candidate for NC House, was telling a small group at a Tuesday luncheon hosted by the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce about the committees she would like to serve on.

“Unfortunately, the more money you raise and give to the speaker, the better committee assignment you get,” Conrad said. “I don’t like that situation.”

Currently serving as a Republican county commissioner, Conrad is favored to win the race to replace Rep. Dale Folwell in NC House District 74. Both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, who are looking to expand their majority in this year’s election. The top leader in the House is Speaker Thom Tillis.

Conrad’s remark prompted a titter of discomfort at the table. One person suggested: “Off the record?” Another person seated at the table uttered the phrase “pay to play” — a common characterization of how business was once transacted in the NC House under the leadership of now disgraced Democratic Speaker Jim Black.

“No, I really don’t like that process,” Conrad said. She laughed and added, “So give lots of money.”

Afterwards, Conrad explained, “The party wants the money funneled to a central source, which is the speaker as head of the caucus, to help the other candidates who are having a hard time.”

The candidate said Tillis has never told her directly that the amount of money she raises for other Republican candidates will determine whether she gets the committee assignments she wants, but she often receives e-mails from other candidates asking for money.

“I’m feeling the pressure that it could be an association,” Conrad said.

She added, “I hope that I don’t disappoint him. It’s more of a team mentality. If you don’t make the goals, you don’t get to play as much. It’s no criticism of the speaker; I just think that’s the way it is.”

Conrad said she doesn’t agree that a linkage between the amount of money raised for other candidates and committee assignments is indicative of a “pay to play” culture in Raleigh.

Jordan Shaw, communications director for Tillis, said it’s normal for candidates to try to raise money, whether for themselves or others in the party. “There’s no correlation,” Shaw said. “There’s none of that type of operation.

“Committee assignments are done based on things like seniority and leadership experience with the issues they’re dealing with,” he added. “It has nothing to do with campaign finance or any money you raise.”

Conrad said she probably wouldn’t have raised the matter except that she and fellow NC House candidate Donny Lambeth had just been commiserating over the pressure they were feeling from their party.

“He doesn’t even have an opponent, and he’s having a fundraiser,” Conrad said. “That’s why they’re putting pressure on him — because he doesn’t have an opponent, and he can just turn the money over to the general pool.”

Of course, Tillis’s spokesman denies the existence of any kind of pay-to-play scheme.  (To me, that ranks right there with Tillis’s denial that he was meddling in the NC House primary between Arthur Williams and Mattie Lawson.  Congressman Walter Jones finally gave us the truth on all that.)  I’ve heard similar stories from other legislators and legislative candidates that lead me to believe this story from Conrad is spot-on.

I’ve seen comments from some party apologists saying, basically: “What’s the big deal? Black and Basnight did this all the time. Why is the media only now reporting on it?”

Does the NCGOP really want to use Jim Black and Marc Basnight as justification for their activities?  Just because Charlie Manson tattoos a swastika on his forehead doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to do it.

This practice of demanding candidates pony up to the leadership is defended as strengthening the party’s efforts to help all of its candidates at election time.  I’ve helped A LOT of candidates in my time.  I can’t recall A ONE that got significant financial help from the local or state party.  The money that goes to the party tends to STAY at state party HQ.  You’ve got a clique of consultants and hangers-on at NCGOP HQ who enjoy seeing their names in print, and their faces in news photos next to Pat McCrory, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney while pulling down big salaries and rarely leaving the confines of the Raleigh beltline.

Polls show all of the GOP ticket for Council of State hanging close to their Democrat opponents.  But all of them — except lieutenant governor nominee Dan Forest — are starving for cash.  Where is all that money the party leadership raised from legislative candidates under the pretense of helping other GOP candidates and growing the party’s influence in Raleigh?

NCGOP promised real change in Raleigh when they took over in 2011.  Looking at the entire picture, it appears that we got little more than a new set of money-changers in the temple.  A new set of hands in the cash-box.

We need to keep a GOP majority in the legislature.  The potential for real conservative reform is there.  We have to keep their feet to the fire.  If we take our eye off of them at all, they’ll fall back to monkey business like this pay-to-play scheme.

Skip Stam and Thom Tillis have made it clear they are not capable — or seriously interested — in seriously changing the way Raleigh does business.  If NCGOP is serious about selling their reform agenda to the voters, they need to toss both of those guys out of leadership and replace them with new, fresh faces who are better grounded in the realities of life outside the Raleigh beltline.