WASHINGTON — An agreement by Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Rick Lazio to discourage “soft money” ads in their Senate race in New York, hailed as a victory for campaign-finance reform, appears to be crumbling before it can begin.
On Monday, at least one influential group on each side said it would disregard the deal reached Saturday and feel free to promote its own interests in the campaign.
“We are not going to pledge not to do things” that might affect the election, said Laurence Gold, associate general counsel for the AFL-CIO, which supports Democrats. He called the idea of silencing groups that want to participate in a campaign undemocratic and unworkable. “The campaigns can never secure promises from every conceivable group,” he said.
“We raised lots of money from people,” said Morton Blackwell, chairman of the Emergency Committee to Stop Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We are completely independent. No campaign or party committee can direct us.”
Blackwell’s committee is an arm of the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee, which he also chairs. Lazio listed that group as among those that agreed to hold their advertising fire if Clinton signed the soft-money pledge.
The statements appeared to undercut a deal the campaigns worked out over the weekend. Both sides agreed to ban broadcast advertising paid for by political parties with soft money — unregulated, unlimited contributions from corporations, labor unions and individuals. Such ads escape rules on fundraising by not explicitly calling for the election or defeat of a candidate. Both campaigns also agreed to press independent groups to forgo ads on their behalf.
On Monday, Lazio’s campaign appealed to Blackwell’s group to fall into line. Otherwise, the campaign said, donors would be told “that their hard-earned money is being spent in a way detrimental to Congressman Lazio’s campaign.”
The developments were the latest evidence of a seemingly unstoppable flood of money flowing outside the regulated campaign-finance system. A report last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia estimated spending nationwide on outside “issue ads” so far in this election at $ 342 million. That’s a record.
“One of the lessons emerging from the New York Senate race is that voluntary bans, however laudable, are not the solution to our nation’s campaign-finance woes,” said Scott Harshbarger, president of the reform group Common Cause.
The Lazio-Clinton agreement covers only radio and TV advertising; soft money still can be used for other activities, such as mailing campaign brochures and organizing phone banks and other get-out-the-vote efforts. The deal grew out of a public relations war that began Sept. 13 when Clinton and Lazio had their first debate. In one of the evening’s more dramatic moments, Lazio walked across the stage to confront Clinton and brandished a piece of paper that he called “The New York Freedom from Soft Money Agreement.” He insisted that she sign it on the spot.
Clinton countered that she would be willing to give up her soft-money contributions if Lazio could convince a host of outside groups supporting him to stop their campaigns against her.
The deal seemed to benefit Lazio most. Clinton has relied heavily on soft money raised through the state Democratic Party to finance her television ads. In federally regulated “hard” dollars, Lazio held an advantage. As of Aug. 23, the most recent date for which figures are available, Lazio’s campaign led Clinton’s, $ 10.2 million-$ 7.1 million, in cash on hand.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center, said voluntary agreements have occasionally succeeded in reform-minded states. She cited Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold’s forswearing of party soft-money ads in 1998 in his re-election in Wisconsin, and a ban on most soft-money spending in the Massachusetts Senate race in 1996.
“New York doesn’t have a history of something like this,” she said, so it is an open question whether the electorate there will turn against a candidate whose allies violate the ban. “The question is, what is the penalty for breaking it?”
Groups asked for restraint
More than two dozen outside interest groups have been asked by Senate candidates Rick Lazio and Hillary Rodham Clinton to refrain from advertising in their New York race:
Allied with Lazio
* The American Conservative Union
* Citizens for a Sound Economy
* Coalition for a Better America
* The Conservative Campaign Fund
* The Conservative Leadership PAC
* Conservatives for Effective Leadership
* National Conservative Campaign Fund
* The Republican Jewish Coalition
* The Republican National Committee
* The Republican Leadership Council
* Save Our Senate
Allied with Clinton
* American Federation of Teachers
* Association of Trial Lawyers of America
* Democratic National Committee
* Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee
* Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee
* Liberal Party of New York
* National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League
* National Education Association
* New York State Democratic Party
* Planned Parenthood
* Sierra Club
* Working Families Party