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Commentary: Bosley right to put child first - but not to ask others to pay

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2013 - Recently, longtime St. Louis Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. sent a letter to a number of friends and supporters asking for contributions for his daughter’s college education. The letter begins, “Hello dear friend and supporter: This is Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. requesting your support once more.”

This fundraising letter was not illegal, but it was wrong. The alderman disagrees.

After the media picked up the story the alderman reversed his position on accepting the contributions while still insisting in an interview with KMOV’s Matt Sczesny (June 5) that there was nothing “terribly politically wrong with it.” In response to a further question about whether or not he might understand how others could see the fundraising as compromising his public position, he replied “Absolutely not, I’m that child’s father, and you have an obligation to help your children any way you can.

Although he failed to see the irony, Alderman Bosley’s reaction highlights perfectly the reason why such on-the-side fundraising is ethically problematic for public office holders. Parents are obligated to help their children in almost any way they can; that is why such obligations must be kept far away from a politician’s public responsibilities. It is not hard to figure out which one would lose if they conflicted.

Democracy requires that we must ask our public servants to keep their most heartfelt and legitimate personal interests contained, if not coldly set aside, in a way that we ask of no other profession, except perhaps our armed services. The more powerful the position, the more important this sacrifice is. Can the alderman say that, being the proud father he is, he is less likely to open the door to someone who is making his daughter’s well-deserved college education possible than to someone who contributes to his campaign?

How can we expect that of a father?

In Missouri, unlike most places, we don’t have any campaign finance limits in place: essentially, anyone can finance an entire candidacy if they have the cash. Instead of limits, we have campaign finance reporting. The idea is that if money is to flow freely in the political system, we should at least be able to trace it back to its source. But these contributions to his daughter’s education — no matter how understandably important to the alderman — would have been entirely off the books, and therefore deeply problematic.

Suppose someone volunteered to pay for her entire college education?

“So,” the alderman might respond, “what am I to do about my daughter’s college education?” And he is facing it since he said he would return donations that came in as a result of this letter.

It is a legitimate question. But it is one that all parents face, not just aldermen. The skyrocketing price of education is precisely the kind of problem we are asking our public servants to address, because all of us want the best for our children, but not all of us have a cadre of supporters willing to send us money when difficulties arise.

Wally Siewert is director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.