Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Guest Column in The State

Look who's bankrolling legislative races now

By ROSS SHEALY - Guest Columnist

Paul Farago ... does that name ring a bell?

Probably not.

Even if you consider yourself an authority on South Carolina politics, you probably don’t know who he is. But perhaps you should, because he’s trying to take over your government.

In 2006, Paul Farago was a Portland, Ore., acupuncturist. Alternative medicine must have been booming in the Pacific Northwest, because Farago spent the year sending $1,000 checks to S.C. House campaigns — a total of $16,000. He funded unsuccessful candidates such as Republican Sheri Few and Democrat Annie McDaniel, and successful candidates such as Republicans Jeff Duncan and Kit Spires.

That’s a lot of money, but I’m guessing I haven’t jogged your memory. You’re still not familiar with Paul Farago. Never read his name in the newspaper or seen his face on the nightly news.

This year Paul Farago upped the ante. He’s relocated to Asheville, N.C., and contributed, as far as we know, another $25,000 in maximum contributions to candidates around our state. He’s helped fund unsuccessful races such as Democratic House candidate Zina Manning (who?) and Republican Senate candidate Katrina Shealy. He’s also helped finance successful candidates, such as incumbent senators Kevin Bryant and Greg Ryberg. All told, Paul Farago has fired off $1,000 checks to more than 20 candidates in more than 20 counties this year.

If you still have no clue who Paul Farago is, and why he treats our state politics like his own personal World Series of Poker, don’t feel bad. The fact is, you aren’t supposed to know about Paul Farago, or that he’s going all in to shape our Legislature.

You aren’t supposed to know, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Farago is what I call a deputy for Howard Rich, the shadowy sheriff of the S.C. voucher lobby. Rich is the New York millionaire who has been exposed as the financier of South Carolinians for Responsible Government and other pro-voucher/tuition tax credit lobbying groups in our state. According to tax filings, Farago is a director of Americans for Limited Government, a national fund chaired by Rich.

Farago is one of several underlings whose money follows Mr. Rich’s own cash into the accounts of private school voucher candidates around the state.

There’s Joseph Stilwell of New York, a director of Howard Rich’s U.S. Term Limits. He contributed $36,000 in 2008, and $37,000 in 2006.

There’s Doug Levine of Miami, a former director of Rich’s Legislative Education Action Drive. He’s contributed $22,000 this year, and $34,000 in 2006.

These three gentlemen in Howard Rich’s inner circle of political associates have shelled out $170,000 since 2006.

And there are a few other deputies as well. Along with the 30 LLCs Howard Rich uses to get around our state’s contribution limits, this small but moneyed network has pumped more than $600,000 into S.C. races in 2008. By the time disclosures from last month’s general election are submitted, this figure likely will exceed $1 million.

These funders constitute the biggest special interest in the state — by far — leveraging their resources in an effort to build a Legislature that will pass vouchers.

In-state clearinghouses established by Rich recruit candidates and fund them almost entirely with this bundled out-of-state cash — targeting lawmakers who champion strong public schools.

As I discuss this threat with various civic groups, the question I am invariably asked is, “Why?”

Why does this network of Howard Rich associates spend so much to shape our government into one that will pass vouchers, against the will of most S.C. voters?

The answer is perhaps more unsettling than the funding scheme itself.

In addition to being a Howard Rich deputy, Paul Farago is a signatory of a peculiar pledge that reads: “I proclaim publicly that I favor ending government involvement in education.”

It’s the pledge of the California-based Alliance for Separation of School and State. It’s the mantra of a school privatization ideology that is national in scope, yet focused like a laser beam on the Palmetto State. And it’s an oath adhered to by disciples of an ideology that considers public schools flawed by definition.

You won’t hear much about that from the voucher/tax credit groups in South Carolina. When they talk, they use words such as “parental choice” instead of “privatization,” and steer clear of phrases like “ending government involvement in education.”

But no matter how nicely it is packaged by in-state operatives, Howard Rich’s voucher and tax credit agenda is fueled by an ideology that views public education with contempt, and sees vouchers as a means to an end of school privatization.

That’s why you should know who Paul Farago is, even if you aren’t supposed to.

Mr. Shealy, who lives in Cayce with his wife and children, is the writer of the Web sites Barbecue & Politics and Buying South Carolina. He is also a consultant for the S.C. Association of School Administrators.