Puttin' Out the Bone

Luken's the Biggest Panhandler of All

Jan 24, 2002 at 2:06 pm

It works like this. Trust me. I've been around campaigns for most of my adult life, sometimes as a volunteer but also on the payroll. I've run for office myself.

A campaign staff member gives the candidate a "money list" with names, phone numbers, donor profiles and an amount the candidate should ask the potential contributor to give. The list usually has open space to the right of each name so the candidate can make notes: call back, meet for lunch, donor's thinking about it, etc.

Usually the staff member pesters the candidate to "make the damn calls," knowing his or her paycheck lives or dies on whether the candidate follows through. Plus, candidates will often tell you making money calls is the part of politics they least prefer.

But everybody in the candidate's operation knows only he or she can get the big money to flow. Studies show a huge spike when the politician makes the hit versus a volunteer or a staff member, even it it's the chief of staff.

The phone chat goes something like this. I made up names.

"Hey, Tom. Chuck. Yeah, how are you doing? Great. Say, you know I'm running for reelection. Yeah, it has become more of a race than I thought it was going to be. And that's why I'm calling. I was wondering if you might be able to help me. I'm going to have to put a lot of commercials up, and we both know those are expensive. I was wondering if you would be willing to donate $5,000 to my campaign. I know that's a lot, but I'm really up against it this time, and you've always been helpful in the past. What? Oh, no. $1,000 would be fine. No. I appreciate the $1,000, and I know the recession has hit your company hard. No. Thanks very much. Say, would it be OK if Jason came over this afternoon and picked up the check? I have to make a TV buy tomorrow morning. Thanks, Tom. Thank you very much."

Make no mistake about it. Similar calls go to people the candidate has never even met. Maybe he got a contributor list from another candidate or maybe from an advocacy group that endorsed him.

The pitch is essentially the same, but without the connotations of familiarity: "Ed. Yeah, this is Chuck Lucas. I know we've never met before, but Ryan Edwards suggested I give you a call. As you know, I'm running for reelection ..."

It always ends the same way. "Say, could Jason come right over and pick up the check? We're making a television buy tomorrow, and you probably know that they require the money on the front end."

It's called campaign fundraising. Regular folks sometimes call it "dressed-up begging." I flat out call it political panhandling.

So why in the hell is Mayor Charlie Luken — someone who knows the drill as if he were a watchmaker and the money was a Swiss movement — suggesting that poor folks downtown should be stopped from asking someone for a quarter or a dollar?

All right, let's try this another way. A call comes to a mayor's office from a corporate high-up, probably someone the mayor knows from other situations — hell, maybe even someone on one of those money hit lists. (More made-up names.)

"Mayor, this is Stan Richards. We had a regional meeting yesterday, and the numbers for Cincinnati don't look good. No one wants our store to remain downtown more than me. You know that. But there's a lot of competition, especially with those malls. And unless we get some help — and mayor, it's going to take some millions — there's no way we can see clear — I'm talking hard numbers here — to stay in Cincinnati. Is there any way you could get your council to help us with city dollars for our store?"

There it is. Some call it lobbying. Regular folks call it "blue-suit begging." I flat out call it corporate panhandling.

So why in the hell is Luken, someone who has likely been on the other side of that kind of phone call — someone who has often signed on to carry the political water for those corporate suits — suggesting that poor people downtown should be stopped from asking another human being for a quarter or a dollar?

Look. The hypocrisy of the panhandling issue in Cincinnati is stunning. Attack it if it involves a request for a simple cup of coffee. Allow it when it's for a huge pile of green. Attack it if it involves someone wearing a tattered coat donated by the Drop Inn Shelter. Defend it when the beggar is wearing a $1,000 suit. Attack it when the beggar is unshaven. Condone it when he's sporting a $50 haircut. Attack it when the beggar's pitch is laced with personal survival. Welcome it when it's woven with sentiments of civic responsibility. But in the end it's all the same. It's panhandling.

I think many politicians and other members of the corporate oligarchy think the rest of us are stupid. That we won't figure out the similarities between the various situations where one asks another for money. That people will be swayed in their thinking by what another is wearing. That one request will be a turnoff while the other will be seen as almost in the realm of patriotism.

Here's the deal. Until Mayor Charlie Luken and every other city council member who whines about downtown beggars agrees to stop calling us or sending us letters asking for money so they can keep their jobs, and until they stop handing out our tax money to their friends to prop up their businesses, tell them to lay off the common man or woman selling a Streetvibes or asking for some change on a corner.