Profiles in courage or more specifically a lack thereof

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I tell you, a press release sent out by Project Vote Smart, a nonprofit group which collects data on candidates (how have they voted in the past, who funds their campaigns, that sort of thing), really just has me scratching my head. In fact, I'm as confused as a recent law school grad/child of a state lawmaker taking the bar exam.

Here's the opening paragrah:

Project Vote Smart has released the results of its Presidential Political Courage Test, which showed 55% of presidential candidates were willing to expose their positions on issues of obvious concern to citizens. This represented an 8% decline in the candidates’ willingness to provide such crucial information to citizens since 2004. This also demonstrated the candidates’ increasing interest in controlling the public’s access to information regarding their intentions on issues.

Each candidate was asked repeatedly by key leaders of both major parties and major media, “Are you willing to tell citizens your positions on the issues you will most likely face on their behalf?” Each candidate was then provided a series of questions known to be of concern to citizens, but also likely considered dangerous by their campaign consultants. Candidates were invited to address the issue areas in language they were comfortable using.

More than 100 political scientists, prominent political leaders and journalists created and implemented the Political Courage Test. During the six-week testing period, candidates were confronted numerous times by news organizations, party leaders and Vote Smart staff, in efforts to compel them to provide voters with this essential information.

“This Test demonstrated the obvious relationship between exploding campaign financing, candidates’ ability to control their messages and the public’s loss of access to information,” said Richard Kimball, Vote Smart President. “After all, this is information the nation’s founders considered essential for a healthy democracy.”

The results of Vote Smart’s ten-year study clearly showed that as campaign consultants and both major parties increasingly advised their candidates to dodge specifics on issue questions, candidates followed this advice. The number of federal candidates willing to answer issue questions plummeted from 72 percent in 1996 to 48 percent in 2006.

Exactly what issues of obvious concern are we talking about? Exactly what questions are candidates dodging? Iraq? Iran? Health care? Belief in UFOs? I don't know about you, but I have a pretty good idea where the major candidates stand on all the major issues.

What this sounds like more than anything is a case of sour grapes. We're sorry PVS that Hillary Clinton didn't want to take your lunchroom quiz. We feel really bad that Mitt Romney wouldn't sign your yearbook. Jeez.

And you know what, if I was Fred Thompson or Barack Obama I'd probably stay away from the folks at Project Vote Smart like they're the BO problem in Government and Economics class. Read this opening statement on the PVS website:

Project Vote Smart, the nation's premier political research organization, is hiring at its wilderness research retreat in the Montana Rockies. We are about to announce the completion of the nation's first Voter's Self-Defense System. Leaders as diverse as Carter, Ford, McCain, and Dukakis have backed this mammoth effort by the nation's youngest citizens to defend voters from the manipulative and abusive tactics of today's political candidates? JOIN US. Come find out how you can join our effort to save democracy.

One, I don't think I'd be touting any affiliation with Michael Dukakis. And two, with those "defend voters from the manipulative and abusive tactics of today's political candidates" and "save democracy" bits (not to mention that whole mountain top HQ thing), well, make Project Vote Smart sound like it's one part PIRG, one part Red Guard, and one part Heaven's Gate.

As a side note, Richard Kimball, founder and president of the nonprofit Project Vote Smart, received a bonus of over $400,000 in 2005-06 from the nonprofit, according to the Missoula Independent, a pay day that quite a few folks have criticized.

For fiscal year April 2005 to March 2006, Project Vote Smart President Richard Kimball was given a $400,000 bonus, and a raise in salary to the tune of 300 percent. His full 2005-2006 fiscal year compensation, according to Vote Smart tax filings, was $471,994 ––nearly one third of the group’s overall operating budget.

Why did Kimball have such a robust 2006? The answer is complicated.

First, there’s the reason given at the end of Vote Smart’s 990 tax form for the fiscal year ending in 2006: “This bonus was paid to compensate Richard Kimball for being the key employee and leading the organization for more than 10 years at a very low average salary between $25,000 and $35,000…His new salary is $114,314 per year,” the document says.

And because it appears that PVS may have been less than forthcoming about Kimball's big payday, some are accusing Project Vote Smart of hypocrisy:

“[Vote Smart] is just not transparent,” MacRae says. It’s an aspect of the organization MacRae says saddens him and many of his fellow alums, because they believe in the group’s cause, which has been to staunchly advocate for a political climate wherein all politicians are open and honest about their finances and their stances on issues.

Vote Smart has assailed politicians for not being open. They have also criticized politicians, including Sen. Jon Tester, who refuse to take part in their National Political Awareness Test.

That advocacy for openness and clarity, however, apparently doesn’t go both ways.

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