Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Candidate's Crisis of Conscience

by Judy Nadler


Peter Jensen began his council campaign with mixed feelings. Although he was very excited about the prospect of serving the city of Livermore, he was worried about how tough the campaign would be and the amount of money he would have to raise to be competitive. Fortunately he had an understanding wife and family, supportive friends, and an employer who would allow him time off to attend candidate forums and other special events.

For the first two weeks things were great. His parents, siblings, and family members sent checks, and his closest friends offered advice as well as contributions. The precinct walking was fun, and he was gearing up for the important endorsement interviews to be held at the end of the month.

As the endorsement questionnaires arrived in the mail, he was surprised at the detailed questions he was asked to answer. The labor unions, open space advocates, education coalitions, transit riders, affordable housing coalition, and taxpayers association all scheduled interviews. While only a few would write campaign checks, having the endorsements of key groups was important to gaining credibility and bringing in additional donations.

Jensen learned quickly that if he was completely honest, he would please very few of these groups. "My views on these complex subjects can't be explained in a questionnaire," he told his campaign manager. "And I don't feel comfortable committing to voting a particular way without knowing all the facts and hearing what the public has to say."

His campaign manager, who had worked for the last three successful city council candidates, urged him to put his scruples aside and look at the prize. "There is no point in running," he argued, "unless you're willing to compromise a little to please the voters. Once we get you elected, you can vote anyway you want."

Questions:

1. How should Jensen proceed with the questionnaires and endorsement interviews?
2. Is it ethical to commit to a project in advance of a public hearing?
3. What are Jensen's obligations to those who endorse him?
4. Should he accept contributions even if he doesn't agree "100 percent" with the donor?

Judy Nadler is the senior fellow in government ethics for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She was formerly the mayor of Santa Clara, Calif.

November 2005


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