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Getting to know office seekers? Money has made it harder

Campaigning — which will dominate virtually every news cycle the next eight months — has changed a lot over the past four decades.

It used to be a national or state campaign could be built around a caravan of open-topped Cadillacs parading down a street with the office seeker standing up and waving to no one in particular. A meeting with the editorial board at this newspaper or perhaps a drive-by, slogan-filled speech at a local venue was as intimate as it got.

Then big money and television advertising happened. That has grown into really big money.

Of course, really big money represents a form of free speech. Far be it from someone who made a living off free speech to criticize it.

That doesn’t make most campaign money-generated forms of free speech easier to digest.

Turn on the television and it’s hard to get through a sitcom without sitting through former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempts to buy a personality with millions of dollars a day on 30-second testimonials. Then he shows up at his first debate, where people ask questions and opponents challenge him, and those advertising dollars turn into paper mache.

At least those are his dollars.

People sending money to Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren get to see her predict our world is ending in a decade due to climate change – minutes after she disembarks from a private jet paid for with money from Mr. and Mrs. Smith in Massachusetts.

But it’s not fair to pick on only presidential candidates.

Not when you have Pennsylvania lawmakers spending campaign dollars on food, booze, exotic travel and special events and reporting them as credit card payments or expense reimbursements, according to a yearlong investigation by Spotlight PA and Caucus news organizations.

Their review of thousands of pages of records indicated state House and Senate candidates spent nearly $3.5 million that can’t be fully traced from 2016 through 2018.

They found spending on foreign trips, tickets to sporting events, limousine rides, country club memberships and a DNA test kit among the “campaign” spending receipts. State law requires campaign accounts to be used for “influencing the outcome of an election.”

Apparently a visit to a fancy European restaurant can influence the re-election bid of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnatti. Apparently, $15,000 spent on Pittsburgh Penguins hockey tickets by Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa has re-election worthy implications.

A state senator who has since left office apparently found it helpful to buy California wine, a $145 shirt and the aforementioned DNA kit.

Where does that leave you and your checkbook, the probable source of a modest campaign contribution?

Conflicted.

You want to be involved, but playing favorites with your vote and your pocketbook is like walking through a minefield at midnight. You really don’t know what the next step will bring.

It’s your money, your free speech and eventually your vote. Do what you wish with them, within the law.

The humble recommendation from here is, before you exercise any of those rights, undertake the massive challenge of trying to get to know the candidate beyond their manufactured personality, poll-tested slogans and marketing-influenced promises.

What are their true principles? What have they done that qualifies them for the job? What results have they shown in life or – in the case of career politicians – in elected service?

This has never been easy, but it’s harder now that the people behind the curtain dominate campaigns.

There is one candidate who, probably due to his gargantuan ego, would prefer you get to know him rather than settling for the contrived product. He happens to be president.

For millions of people and most of the media that has dropped all pretense of objectivity, to know President Trump is to loathe him. The media has no excuses, but for the average person wading through the latest distasteful tweet or bombastic boast, it’s understandable.

However, 63 million people who voted for Trump four years ago camp out in subzero weather awaiting the next rally.

They have accepted we are not electing Miss Congeniality. They are interested in ideas. They are interested in results. Trump has given them plenty of both. Some people don’t like the ideas or the results, but a bunch of people do. His approval rating recently topped 50 percent, better than President Obama at the end of his first term.

A significant portion of the population is still trying to decide how they feel about the businessman-entertainer-politician. You don’t have to send a $25 check to Trump to learn about him. You know what you are getting.

In a perfect world, that would be the case with multiple presidential candidates, not to mention senators, congressmen, governors and state representatives we elect.

But the money-based campaign world we live in has made the task harder, not easier.

David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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