Union operative: 'I broke the law all the time.'

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Ex-union lobbyist exposes how union dues are used to create D.C. corruption

When a powerful politician told Joe Miller that "money is the mother's milk of politics," Miller countered with his own slogan. "Money is the wicked wine of politics," he replied.

I like Miller's catchphrase better, and he offers a candid look at politics and money in "The Wicked Wine of Democracy," his new memoir from University of Washington Press. Miller spent 40 years in national politics, first as a wide-ranging campaign consultant for Democrats, then as a lobbyist for unions and other groups in the nation's capital.

In this campaign season, his book is an entertaining reminder that while political policies and philosophies matter, so do personalities, backroom arm-bending, and that wicked wine. Now 86 and retired, Miller lives in Washington, D.C., but he has strong ties to the Northwest. An East Coaster, he visited the Northwest several times as a young man and was smitten with the region.

Miller was a writer and editor for several Northwest newspapers before he worked on campaigns for such regional luminaries as Warren G. Magnuson, Henry "Scoop" Jackson and Frank Church.

After helping John F. Kennedy win election, he set up shop as a lobbyist representing, among others, the United Steelworkers of America, railroads, and small timber companies in the Northwest. What sets his book apart from the standard insider fare are his tales as a lobbyist and his examples of wicked wine at work.

Miller writes that he passed envelopes of cash to lawmakers, converted campaign checks into hard-to-trace cash, illegally shifted campaign expenses onto the books of labor unions, and did campaign work while on a union payroll.

"I broke the law all the time," he said in an interview. "Everybody was doing it, and you couldn't survive unless you did it."

But Miller had limits. He admits salivating at the sight of a briefcase full of money, but he didn't take bribes. And he didn't skim from the bundles of campaign cash he delivered.

"Padding expenses was one thing," he writes, "stealing from candidates is another."

Miller is a likable and engaging storyteller on the page and on the phone - his nickname, after all, is "Smiling Joe" - so it's difficult to pigeonhole him as a dastardly fellow.

He says he's not remorseful for what he did because everyone else was doing the same, and then some. He also says grand schemes to reduce the role of money in politics would likely be ineffective or, if too strong, would hinder democracy in action.

"If Utopians took over and political money were outlawed," he writes, "slick operators would still find ways to infuse it into the process."

Miller says campaign financing is more visible than it used to be, thanks to disclosure laws, and says competing cash from competing interests tends to cancel each other out, or result in compromise.

To offset egregious practices, he urges reporters to do a better job investigating campaign money and the work of lobbyists.

Miller told me about the time a reporter learned that Miller had created bogus campaign committees with bogus officers who were Miller's neighbors. Miller held his breath when the story appeared in print, expecting a heap of scorn.

The fallout? Nothing.

"It's just resignation," Miller said. "That's the way the game is played."


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