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State races skyrocket
Legislative seats prove expensive for candidates

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Members of the Alabama Legislature make about $30,000 a year for a part-time job that requires them to work three days a week during the three-month session, and occasionally a few extra days for special sessions or committee meetings.

So how come more than $1 million was spent by candidates in five Senate races — and in one House race the two candidates spent more than $75 per vote?

Escalating costs

The cost of advertising, as well as the amount of money special interest groups are willing to spend to get their candidates into office, has escalated the cost of winning a House or Senate seat into the hundreds of thousands of dollars — a level one candidate in this year’s elections described as “absurd.”

Along with those five $1 million-plus state Senate races, there were several other Senate races in which candidates spent more than $500,000 leading up to the Nov. 7 vote.

But the most expensive race per vote may have been in House District 79 in Lee County, where incumbent Republican Rep. Mike Hubbard, the House minority leader, defeated Democratic Party challenger Carolyn Ellis in a race some election observers say may have been the most expensive House race in the state’s history.

Hubbard and Ellis spent a total of $962,501, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Alabama secretary of state’s office. Those two candidates, along with Libertarian candidate Dick Clark, received a total of 12,685 votes. Since Clark did not report spending any money, Hubbard and Ellis spent about $75.89 per vote, or about what it would cost to buy each voter several days worth of groceries.

“Having to raise almost half a million for a race like this is absurd and it is daunting,” said Ellis, wife of former Auburn University basketball coach Cliff Ellis. Finance reports showed Ellis spent $454,615.46, while Hubbard spent $507,885.68.

Ellis said she went into the race thinking she would have to hold a few fund-raisers and raise about $150,000. She said part of the problem is how expensive it has come to buy television and radio advertising, particularly in her district, where she said she had to buy ads in both the Montgomery and Columbus, Ga., markets.

But Hubbard said the bigger problem is the amount of money being put into these races by outside interest groups, like the Alabama Education Association, which supported Ellis.

“I think it’s an embarrassment how much money was spent on this House race. I had no choice but to spend it because the Democrats were spending it against me. They focused on me because I’m the minority leader,” said Hubbard, who is also president of the Auburn Network, which broadcasts Auburn University athletic events.

Hubbard said the cost of running for election, along with the nasty personal ads that are often purchased with those campaign bucks, makes it hard to recruit people to run for the Legislature and other elected positions.

“It’s hard when you tell them you are going to be drawn through mud for a position where you are going to lose money and have to take time from your business. You have to find someone who wants to do it,” Hubbard said.

University of Alabama political scientist David Lanoue said legislative races have become so expensive because special interest groups are willing to donate the money. He said the House seats have become more attractive to interest groups as Republicans have cut into the control Democrats have historically held over the House and Senate.

“Special interest groups that believe they benefit from having Democrats in control of the Legislature will spend money to protect that control,” Lanoue said. He said groups that feel they benefit from having Republicans in control will do the same thing.

Lanoue also blamed the rising pricetag for campaigns on the cost of advertising and the growing number of venues now available to candidates for spreading their messages. Lanoue said at one time candidates only needed to advertise on radio and television and in newspapers, but now they have to think about cable television, the Internet and other growing markets for their ads.

One legislator, state Rep. Jeff McLaughlin, D-Guntersville, said the skyrocketing cost of campaigns sends a “troubling” message to the public and to potential candidates.

“This is intended to be a part-time Legislature,” said McLaughlin, a Harvard-educated lawyer who does not accept campaign donations and is a champion of election finance reform. He was just elected to a third term in the House.

“Having to raise $100,000 or $200,000 just to be able to run — that’s crazy,” McLaughlin said. “There ought to be ordinary people in the Legislature — people who run auto parts stores, raise chickens and teach school.”

McLaughlin said he realizes that his strategy of putting aside $5,000 of his own money for each campaign probably wouldn’t work for most people and it may not even always work for him.

“It’s important for me to run for office the way I believe in, but I realize it would be easy for a well-financed opponent to run me out of my seat,” McLaughlin said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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