Commentary: Context Missing from Big Picture

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Maybe you’ve heard that Democratic mayoral hopeful C. Virginia Fields has been on the defensive over a campaign photo. WNYC’s Brian Lehrer has some thoughts about how that one image fits into the "big picture" of the campaign.

REPORTER: The problem began when someone took two different shots of people from different ethnic groups and photo-shopped them together to make it look like one big diverse campaign family, all together at the same event, cheering their heroin – Virginia Fields, of course – on to victory. Bad idea, and clearly wrong, but a small deal as political scandals go.

A dispute over what the candidate knew about the edit and when she knew it has kept the story in the news. Still, it’s hardly Watergate or Monica Lewinsky. Yet, this little backroom brawl may actually put an end to Fields’ mayoral aspirations. Why? Well, press accounts say while the voting public has not much noticed “photo-gate”, donors have. And Fields’ already-small bank account is in danger of running dry.

By the way, Virginia Fields isn't the only mayoral candidate embroiled in an image-making snafu right now. City Council Speaker Gifford Miller is under investigation by the Conflicts of Interest Board for using his franking privileges to mail New Yorkers citywide about the council’s budget priorities - five million pieces of mail with photos of Miller prominently featured. This is a little more serious, since it involves more than a million tax dollars, but it's still a garden variety ethics charge that crops up coast to coast - about the fine line between official and campaign mail.

So what’s missing from this picture? Context.

Both Fields and Miller are struggling to build their public images on limited budgets, using low-cost techniques like franking and fliers, while Mayor Bloomberg is spending a million dollars a week from his own deep pockets on round after round of highly-produced television commercials: a testimonial from Rudy Giuliani here, a gaggle of smiling public school parents there, the mayor speaking to Latinos en Espanol.

By contrast, none of the four Democratic hopefuls has aired even one TV spot.

The mayor’s money may also shield him from even having a Republican primary. He has a six-figure-salary employee directing efforts to prevent challenger Tom Ognibene from gathering enough petition signatures to even get on the ballot.

And it’s not just Mayor Bloomberg. This is where politics is heading more and more: toward a new American plutocracy – toward government by the wealthy. Both candidates for Governor of New Jersey – Democrat Jon Corzine and Republican Doug Forrester – are self-funding from their personal wealth. Like the mayor, they’re more likely to get scrutinized for who they give money to than for who gives to them.

So what does all this mean for democracy? Well, there’s the good and the bad. Wealthy candidates have independence from big money special interests. That’s important and undeniably good. But they also have no need to attract financial support from ordinary citizens. And their intimidating wealth makes it harder for anyone who’s not in their tax bracket to run at all.

What’s more, we’re likely to become increasingly plutocratic for two main reasons: the ever-higher cost of television advertising, and the Supreme Court ruling that allows campaign fundraising to be limited, but not campaign spending. That’s seen as free speech. So guess who benefits from McCain-Feingold?

That’ll leave more candidates like Virginia Fields to build their images on the cheap, with no margin for error. And it’ll mean more pressure for the parties to hang out the sign reading Only Rich Folk Need Apply.

WNYC’s Brian Lehrer. You can hear his call-in show weekdays at 10am.