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Contributions make democracy go round

. . .The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must _ Thucydides.

Jim Bacchus, the former Florida congressman, recently quoted the ancient Greek historian in an article extolling the significance of the World Trade Organization, where he's one of its seven top judges.

Thucydides was remarking on the mistreatment of the people of Melos, a tiny island, by conquering Athenians.

". . . Many today," Bacchus wrote in Vanderbilt Magazine, the journal of his alma mater, "still believe that the strong, by right, should rule the weak. Human nature has not changed since the Peloponnesian War."

But, he said, "the rule of law can demonstrate that might and right need not be the same. The demonstration can begin with rules for the world marketplace."

Bacchus sent me a copy that arrived, by neat coincidence, on the same day I was exchanging e-mails with a Tallahassee lobbyist of long acquaintance on the subject of a very modern abuse of power.

Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, who will be Senate president if the Republicans preserve their majority, had written to 54 lobbyists who had contributed money to Rep. DeeDee Ritchie, D-Pensacola, while she was still a candidate for re-election to her House seat. Now that she has switched to a Senate race, McKay wrote, she is required to ask the contributors whether they want refunds.

"When she does," said McKay, "I hope you will consider exercising your option to get your money back."

When a prospective Senate president tells a lobbyist, "I hope," what he really means is, "You'd better. . . ."

It's not news that a legislative leader would try to bully lobbyists into giving _ or as in this case, not giving _ to a candidate. It is news that McKay would put it in writing. Didn't he care how it would look? Or did he simply figure that the public is past caring?

Our putative Senate president is either too naive or too cynical.

"This happens too much any more," said my friend the lobbyist. "The Democrats were getting this way too, before they got tossed out."

Both sides, he said, have railed at him on occasion for the campaign donations he and his clients make.

"I always tell them it's a business decision," he explained. "It follows demonstrated support and probable help in the future as opposed to ideology or party . . . be accountable to stockholders instead of citizens . . . . It's the Legislature's job to protect the citizens."

If the Legislature does not protect the citizens very often, that's not the lobbyists' fault. Ask veteran lobbyists who the great legislators were, and they'll name those who were least influenced by campaign money, but whose word you could take to the bank. If such legislators are fewer these days, it's because those to whom the money does matter have driven them out. One legislator, according to a plausible account I heard in Tallahassee, tracks his corporate contributions on a bar chart, which is kept where visiting lobbyists can see it.

Because the party in power is the one that can be most helpful to the lobbyists, that party expects _ and gets _ the lion's share of the money. It's the death spiral of democracy. Money begets power. Power begets money.

Forty-three candidates have filed so far for the 21 Senate seats at stake in November. They have reported nearly $4.7-million in cash and in-kind contributions. But the 29 of them who are incumbent senators or House members account for nearly all of the money, some $4.2-million. The 17 Democratic candidates _ including incumbents and House members _ have only $1.1-million, or just barely twice as much as the $522,000 reported by a single Republican, Rep. Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, who has plainly done well by his chairmanship of the House appropriations committee. It would seem the lobbyists are betting on Pruitt to defeat Rep. Sharon Merchant of North Palm Beach in the Republican primary. She had raised only $222,000 when the session began and fundraising shut down.

Ritchie, a late entry into the race for the seat that term limits have finally wrested from W.D. Childers, R-Pensacola, has only $35,000 so far compared to $192,000 for Rep. Durrell Peaden, Jr., R-Crestview. That didn't stop McKay from trying to bankrupt her.

"I am flattered, I am absolutely honored to be taken so seriously," said Ritchie, adding that "I've made quite a few calls and out of all the calls I've made not one person has said they wanted their money back. . . . Of course, when they wake up with a horsehead in their bed, maybe they will."

Some of the lobbyists had given to both candidates before Ritchie changed races and may be privately peeved with her for putting them on a spot. But they're probably angrier at McKay for trying to bully them so publicly. Any refund would be a conspicuous public record _ and a conspicuous embarrassment.

It's good news, really. Enough such thuggery and the lobbyists will be demanding campaign reform. For once, the strong and the weak would be on the same side.