ST. PAUL -- Bob Westfall got unwelcome exposure this fall to a new brand of legislative campaigning precipitated by a ruling that untied the hands -- and opened the wallets -- of political parties and caucuses.
Voters denied the Rothsay Republican a third House term, he believes, on the weight of bruising TV, radio and mail ads that cast him as anti-education and a backer of stadium subsidies. Westfall says his record proves both claims false.
In Westfall's loss to DFLer Paul Marquart -- and several other hotly contested races -- the money was as noteworthy as the message.
Although final tallies won't be released until January, the two major parties combined to spend more than $230,000 on the Westfall-Marquart race, in addition to thousands more pumped in by outside groups. The candidates themselves could spend no more than $25,320 because they accepted public subsidies.
"I have the distinction of being the highest-priced defeated candidate in state history for the state House of Representatives," Westfall said.
By most accounts, the 2000 battle for the Legislature was the most costly and hostile in memory. As many as 15 House races saw spending crack six figures. And neither party was bashful about using dubious claims or unflattering images in its ads.
"They made my ugly face look worse than it is," Westfall said, "just some real smear tactics."
The author of legislation last year that would have restricted the amount parties and caucuses can spend on individual races said he saw it coming. Now, Rep. Matt Entenza thinks there's a bigger appetite for his proposals.
"Both sides are feeling bruised by stuff the other side did," said Entenza, DFL-St. Paul.
In the aftermath, members of both parties and Gov. Jesse Ventura's cabinet are mulling ways to retool campaign finance laws.
Among the ideas under consideration:
--Bumping up the political contribution refund to allow individuals to recoup $100 for campaign donations instead of the current $50. Proponents say this would get more "clean money" into the system.
--Raising candidate spending caps at a faster rate for candidates receiving public subsidies (now $25,320 in the House and $50,630 in the Senate). Increases are now pegged to the consumer price index, but some say that has not kept pace with rising costs of advertising and other campaign expenses.
--Tying state subsidies for political parties and caucuses to voluntary restraints on independent expenditures, which are mostly unregulated campaign infusions used for ads on behalf of candidates or attacking their opponents. The expenditures are made without the prior consent or cooperation of the candidate they are meant to benefit.
--Requiring outside groups to disclose their donor lists and the targets of independent expenditures in a more timely fashion.
"If we don't fix (the system) this session, we no longer have a viable, clean, publicly financed campaign system," said Dean Barkley, Ventura's campaign finance point man.
But all sides enter the session conscious of court rulings that have derailed efforts before.
In 1999, U.S. District Judge Ann Montgomery struck down a law that had restricted political parties and caucuses from making independent expenditures.
Even though Montgomery acknowledged that "the candidates' and parties' insatiable drive for money eats away at the fiber of American democracy" with each passing election, her ruling said free speech must win out.
"Legislating in this sphere, however, is extremely difficult because any restrictions on the flow of politically motivated spending collide directly with the cherished, yet fragile, freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment," she said.
In effect, Montgomery opened the floodgates. The House DFL had a $2 million budget for the last campaign, its largest ever. House Republicans say they raised and spent more than double the $1.1 million they did in 1998. Both Senate caucuses also anted up, but to a lesser degree than the House.
Independent expenditures were the weapon of choice.
"They absolutely changed the way the game is played," said House DFL campaign director Steve Veverka. He figures that his caucus directed $1.2 million to independent expenditures, including hefty ad buys in targeted races like Westfall's. House Republican leaders say their independent expenditures approached $1 million.
Barkley and other opponents of independent expenditures are banking on public outcry to carry their proposals through the Legislature.
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