By Ned Cantwell
Last week the Supreme Court opened the door to even more influence by money in American politics.
One of the arguments was that contributing money to a candidate is a First Amendment right, no different whatsoever from, say, a newspaper endorsing a candidate.
Let’s look at how that may play out.
I write a letter to the editor enumerating the many charms of Congressman Steve Pearce, urging New Mexicans to return him to office. (OK, so this is a fairy tale.)
And let’s say an oil guy and his wife jointly contribute more than five thousand bucks to Steve’s campaign.
Here’s the civics lesson. The Supreme Court ruling means my right to submit the letter to the editor and the donor’s right to make contributions are identical. We are both expressing our opinions, he with money, me with an endorsement letter. We are equal under the First Amendment.
This puts a newspaper guy in a tough position. He certainly has to defend the First Amendment. He might, however, suggest letters, columns and editorials may not carry the weight of an envelope full of cash.
He might say when it comes time to set policy and vote on relevant issues, the guy who expresses his opinion with a $5,000 check and maybe donated $20,000 to federal PACs is a lot more influential than the guy who writes a letter.
A hypothetical example: Say I happen to have a soft spot in my heart for the lesser prairie chicken. It’s a bizarre bird, for sure, but an eccentric creature with special charm.
Part of that charm is its unique mating ritual, bird watching’s version of UConn vs. Kentucky. What happens is the lesser prairie chicken guy struts out on a spring morning and begins making low booming noises and crazed crackling that can be heard for miles.
While booming and crackling he raises ear-like feathers on his head and puffs up orange air sacks in his neck.
What’s a girl to do? It’s all too much to resist, even for the most reserved and prim chick. Each male stakes out about 100 square feet of his very own and tries to lure his girlfriend into that space. He signals other guys to make themselves scarce.
This cherished seasonal delight in New Mexico is threatened by the alarming demise of the bird population. “Drought and habitat destruction are devastating the small remaining populations of this magnificent bird,” says Jay Lininger with the Center for Biological Diversity.
The numbers bear him out. There were 34,440 lesser prairie chickens counted in 2012, but only 17,616 in 2013.
Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Little Prairie Chicken as an endangered species. It was a controversial decision.
Back to the hypothetical example.
This might be a good time for me to contact my congressman and say, “Mr. Pearce, I wrote a letter to the editor saying you were a good guy and I sure would appreciate it if you give full support to the lesser prairie chicken endangered species status.”
And the oil guy might call Pearce directly and say, “Steve, this endangered species crap is part of Obama’s war on fossil fuels. I have given you a bunch of money over the years and I am expecting you to put an end to this nonsense.”
Here’s the thing. Mr. Pearce is going to carefully weigh each position, one against the other. Because the letter writer and the campaign contributor’s First Amendment messages are equal. The Supreme Court said so.
What do you think?
Ned Cantwell — ncantwell at bajabb.com — once gave a state rep $25. He didn’t even get a Christmas card.