Friday, 03 August 2012 00:00
In 1977, fresh out of law school, I ran for supervisor in the Town of North Hempstead. I had been a zone leader and committeeman; ran election campaigns and I was a member of the New Democratic Coalition, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party that championed the campaigns of Congressman Allard Lowenstein, Eugene McCarthy, Bobby Kennedy and George McGovern. I was an elected National Convention delegate. I received and gave campaign contributions. I headed Ed Muskie’s campaign in New York.
In 1978, I joined the Republican Party and then its Chairman’s Club, the alleged “Fat Cat” arm of what was then a political machine in my county. I ran the candidacies of judges and other candidates serving as the head of Ronald Reagan’s Nationalities Committee and being offered a position at the Department of Justice after he was elected. It was a standard custom and practice for candidates including judicial candidates to assemble teams of lawyers who then endorsed them and gave them money.
They would then continually appear before these judges receiving assignments, “refereeships” and other spoils. It was and is a legalized system of bribery, which is condoned on a national scale even by the Supreme Court of the United States, which has removed prohibitions on campaign contributions. Politicians now tout how much they have raised as a badge of honor but also to show their electability and support among voters. Yet rarely does the amount raised show support among a broad base of the electorate. Instead it shows large contributions by a few who expect something in return if their candidate wins.
In 1991 I was elected as a part-time village justice on Long Island. As an elected justice I could no longer contribute to political campaigns or be involved in politics. I quickly found out that some of my fellow judges get around these judicial rules by having spouses and children contribute. One judge even wore a disguise to conventions while another annually pretended to be running for higher judicial office so he could circumvent the rule. I quickly learned that all judgeships and political offices have a price. When I was under consideration for a federal judgeship I requested the support of a former United States senator whose “bag man” then informed me that I should retain him for $15,000. I had a similar experience with a senator when I was a lawyer and attempted to secure congressional immunity for a client. I was brought to the senator’s campaign headquarters and shown loose-leaf books of contributors, the implication being “give and ye shall receive.” I did not give and I did not receive.
By 2007, I had run four times and been elected three times without opposition. My local political leader felt that I was too liberal to run on his slate and told me that I should run on my own but that he would not put a candidate up against me. I established my own party, the Judicial Independence Party, refused to accept campaign contributions or endorsements from anyone and encouraged others to run against me. No one did and I won. I did the same thing in 2011.
I am a believer that all campaign contributions should be banned and that candidates for office should run on their records. This may deprive the media from receiving millions for political ads and sign makers from blighting our environment with signs that tell us nothing about the records of candidates, only their names and the offices they seek. Do we really want a system of government that is bought and paid for? Didn’t we learn our lessons after Watergate and the slush funds of that era? It is far worse now. Slush funds were secret, now they’re wide open and candidates take credit for them. Naturally if you do not have the money to contribute, you will be left out in the cold while the “good ole boys and girls,” step up to the trough.
Thomas F. Liotti
Garden City attorney
Westbury Village justice