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CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: PERCEPTION IS REALITY

Being the public eye brings a unique set of challenges to any aspiring candidate or elected official. Things that were once thought to be private are often laid bare for all to see, including business deals, financial holdings, personal relationships, and more. Countless examples have shown that even decades-old revelations can have a damaging effect on a campaign.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s embrace of all things ‘social’ has been certainly been one of his trademark feats, but it has not come free of controversy. In addition to being a faithful utilizer of technology, Booker has also found himself in a potential conflict of interest with the technology industry itself. The candidate has nurtured close relationships with powerful technology executives, including Eric E. Schmidt, the chairman of Google, and Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire Facebook founder. Booker’s financial involvement in an Internet start-up called ‘Waywire’ has been a source of scrutiny and criticism in recent months – raising concerns about nepotism and conflicts of interest. Some have taken aim at Booker for being too close to the technology industry, when it was revealed through financial disclosure forms that Booker held a financial stake in ‘Waywire’ that was valued somewhere between $1-$5 million. Booker’s cozy ties with the technology industry has led to criticism that if elected to national office, he will be overly sympathetic to Silicon Valley’s demands. While that charge may be premature, simply the perception that Booker is overly beholden to ‘special interests’ can be a drag on his campaign.

Congressman Mike McCaul (R-TX) generated additional controversy over his personal finances. McCaul’s wife Linda is the daughter of the chairman of Clear Channel Communications, a mass media giant. In 2011, Roll Call reported that McCaul had become the richest member of Congress, surpassing Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) whose net worth exceed $220 million. McCaul’s fortune doubled between 2008 and 2009 and tripled again by 2010, growing from about $12 million in 2004 to over $294 million by 2011. The increase in wealth was explained as a “generational wealth transfer” from his spouses’ family to his own. McCaul was in the center of even more controversy when it was revealed that he had purchased stock in TransCanada, a major energy company, while vigorously lobbying Congress to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project, from which he would profit from personally.

Whether or not a conflict of interest is perceived or real, the media and oftentimes the voters do not make any such distinction. Candidates must be proactive in fending off charges of conflicts of interest before they can become seriously damaging in order to achieve long-term success.