All the angst and foot stomping over the Missouri General Assembly’s failure to do much to clean up state government this year?
Here comes Fred Sauer, who single-handedly is taking enormous steps to fix what many regard as the state’s single greatest ethics flaw — the ability of rich folks to write million-dollar checks to favored candidates.
We’ve seen donations that large in Missouri. We’ve also seen them at the $500,000 and $100,000 level numerous times.
Money rules in the Show-Me State. There are no limits. Until, well, maybe soon.
Weary of waiting for lawmakers to act, Sauer has forked over nearly $1.1 million to a group called Returning Government to the People, which is pushing a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would reinstate campaign limits for the first time since 2008.
Sauer’s proposal would cap donations to candidates at $2,600 per election and to political parties at $25,000. There’s something else, and this is key: The initiative also would stop political committees from obscuring the source of their money by halting the crazy practice of political money laundering.
Back in the donation limits era, politicians played hide the money from reporters, so the public often didn’t know the source of big contributions to candidates. It was maddening, and it was wrong.
Well, Sauer has had enough of this.
“I’m just fed up with it and decided to do what I can do,” he told me in what an aide said was a rare interview. “Missouri will only be healthy again when everybody’s vote counts and representatives have to pay attention to people who elected them.”
A Republican, he made his money at Orion Investment Co., a Clayton business he started that focuses on low-risk investments. This is a man familiar with battle. In Vietnam, he served on one of the last destroyers built in World War II. Fast forward to 2006, when he helped start the Missouri Roundtable for Life, which waged a losing fight against certain types of stem cell research.
He would go on to successfully sue to block a state law that created an incentive program for science and technology companies. The law, he said, amounted to a “socialist venture capitalist system” that handed tax dollars to favored companies. He ran for governor in 2012, finishing third out of four candidates in the GOP nomination race.
Sauer and Todd Jones, a lawyer for Returning Government to the People, are confident their donation limits proposal will get on the ballot. The group needed 158,000 signatures, including 26,700 out of the 5th District in the Kansas City area. They turned in 272,000, and the Georgia company they hired to collect them checks the validity of those signatures along the way.
The secretary of state's office has until Aug. 9 to determine whether the initiative qualifies for the November ballot.
The bulk of Sauer’s $1.1 million went to paying for that Georgia company to gather all those signatures. He pledges another big chunk for advertising, assuming the proposal makes the ballot.
But he may not have to spend all that much. Back in 1994, 74 percent of Missouri voters approved a ballot measure limiting contributions to state candidates. Missourians clearly love the idea. Lawmakers, mostly Republicans, eventually repealed those limits in 2008 in one of the more brazenly political, and cynical, moves of the last decade.
Here’s a prediction: Voters will pass them again this year. Fred Sauer is on the case.
The General Assembly is not.