'Walking-Around Money': A Dubious Tradition

MENTION MONEY IN POLITICS and most Americans think of costly TV ads, PACs--or Ross Perot. But the most basic--and corrupt--form of money in politics is at street level and is as old as the republic: cash doled out on Election Day. If Ed Rollins was telling the truth the first time he talked last week, Republicans in New Jersey were putting a newer, and more cynical, twist on an old American tradition. Democrats may not be too eager to fully air the matter: they spread more money around than Republicans do.

The cash goes by the innocuous name of "walking-around money," an old Baltimore term for the funds needed to conduct candidates on tours through city streets. Much of it has the gloss of civic virtue. Volunteers get money to hand out literature, pay for parking tickets incurred outside polling places and drive people to the polls. But sometimes volunteers just keep the dough, or spread it around. And often payments are larger than would seem necessary for the services rendered: in Louisiana, says Democratic consultant Raymond Strother, Gov. Edwin Edwards in 1991 ladled out $1 million for Election Day "work."

Though outright vote buying never took hold in suburban America, it survives in the Southern countryside and in some big cities, North and South. In the rural South, says Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report, "there are still places you can go and spread money in exchange for white votes. Republicans did it for Goldwater--and more recently for Reagan and Bush." In big cities, much of the cash comes from Democrats and tends to end up in the black community. In Chicago's fractious 1983 mayoral primary, opponents of black candidate Harold Washington offered $10 each to voters, urging them to oppose him. But Washington's shrewd operatives advised voters to take the cash--and vote for him anyway on ballot line nine; "Take the dime and punch nine" was the slogan. No one will ever know how many Chicagoans took the advice--and the ten-spot.