Disarming dilemma

by The West Virginia Record |
Feb. 1, 2008, 4:47am

Putnam Circuit Judge O.C. "Hobby" Spaulding says he won't be taking campaign contributions this election season.

To avoid any appearance of impropriety, the judge says, he'll bankroll his campaign out of "personal savings."

"When people, and especially attorneys, put money into a judge's campaign, some may think that judge owes them something," Spaulding told The Record last week.

It's a thoughtful sentiment.

But before you decide the longtime jurist is everything the people would ever want in a public official, consider another reason he's chosen to make such a public sacrifice.

He can.

In addition to having deep enough pockets to fund a countywide campaign, Judge Spaulding stands to benefit from the perks of incumbency.

A Putnam County public official for more than three decades, Spaulding has served 16 years on the bench. Before that, the Democrat served for five years in the high-profile position of county prosecutor.

Among the electorate in places such as Winfield, Hurricane and Poca, he has what a political operative would call "high name ID."

People around town know Hobby Spaulding. So he needn't spend money introducing himself, spelling out his plans, or promoting his legal accomplishments to potential voters. He doesn't need an expensive direct mail campaign, ads in the newspaper or on cable TV.

Spaulding's opponent in the May 13 primaries, estate lawyer Rosalee Juba-Plumley, doesn't have that luxury.

As an unknown challenger in a near-the-bottom-of-the-ballot race, she'll need to campaign hard to get voter attention. And in taking on a veteran incumbent, Juba-Plumley will have to do better than persuade the electorate she is good; she'll have to convince them to make a change because she is better than Judge Spaulding.

In this modern media age, credibly vying for votes in a county of 54,000 people, that will cost a lot of money.

We shouldn't forget that money is required to make any kind of incumbent challenge in electoral politics. Far from the font of all evil, campaign contributions are the lifeblood of change, dynamism, and accountability in our democratic system. Without campaign contributions, we'd be stuck with the status quo, whether we preferred it or not.

That's why incumbents are often the ones eager to enact campaign warfare disarmament measures -- like donation limits and spending caps. Such "reforms" disproportionately benefit those in office by effectively crippling the efforts of would-be usurpers.

If Judge Spaulding wants to disarm himself and reject contributions in this election cycle, that's his prerogative. But he shouldn't expect his opponent -- nor should he criticize her -- for failing to do the same.

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