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Editorial - When someone's help is not welcome

February 24, 1998

Editorial - When someone's help is not welcome

The West Virginia legislature is embarking on a commendable attempt to tighten up its campaign laws with a measure to prevent candidates from taking campaign loans from anyone except banks and spouses. But the debate has exposed something else that needs regulating - some groups' practice of running negative ads on behalf of candidates without their permission.

But first, the loan bill. Under present law, the contribution limit for campaign donations restricts individuals to $1,000 in the primary and general elections. However, the law doesn't prohibit candidates from taking loans from private individuals, even though there may be little or no chance that the candidate will ever pay back the debt.

During the 1996 campaign, one candidate borrowed $50,000 from a Clay County physician, but as of April 1997 had only repaid $3,000 of that amount. The bill seeks to make sure that a loan is really a loan, and not a contribution disguised as one.

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Banks loaning political candidates money would presumably require the would-be office-holder to provide collateral. Spouses, however, would be allowed to loan their life partners any money that was their own, and not provided by a third party.

During the debate on this bill, however, another obligation targeted for criticism was a $100,000 loan from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which gave the cash to the West Virginia State Victory Committee.

The latter group, based in Washington, D.C., ran negative ads targeting Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlotte Pritt, even though the Republican nominee (and eventual victor) Cecil Underwood had asked that they be pulled.

Underwood objected to the ads because he had pledged not to engage in negative campaigning, but the committee refused.

The Constitution's guarantee of free speech would make a ban on such ads unenforceable, even if the candidate they're backing objected. But it should be possible to require those placing such ads to carry a disclaimer in them, if candidates like Underwood want to run clean campaigns.

If such a regulation were enacted, allowing candidates to disavow negative advertisements, it would be interesting to see which candidates would endorse clean campaigning, and which candidates wouldn't.

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