By Bryan Kim

When it comes to the 2014 Congressional elections, most political pundits hyper-focus on individual issues: where a candidate stands on abortion or gun control, or their specific plan for reducing the deficit. More important than any candidate’s position on the issues is the way they conduct their campaign: whose donations keep their campaign alive, and how much of that is reflected in their positions? Are they planning on making a multi-million dollar career out of their “public service”?

Califorina State Sen. Leland Yee and Utah Sen. Orin Hatch.

Are they, for example, like Leland Yee, a Califronia state senator who advertised himself to voters with a promise to “expose special interests and prevent corruption,” as he was being indicted in March on charges of illegal firearms trafficking and public corruption? Look at his campaign finance records: according to InfluenceExplorer.org‘s compilation of public records, 85.5% of Yee’s campaign funding came from outside his district. A total of 81% of  his campaign’s money came from political action committees and special interests. No politician will actually expose corruption if he or she benefits from it.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) is another perfect example. He has received $1.2 million over his career in campaign donations from the pharmaceutical lobby. Is it any wonder that he led the effort to extend drug copyrights to 12 years, preventing generic drugs from competing with his donors’ products? By preventing generic drugs from entering the market, he’s given his supporters millions in profits over more years where they have the exclusive right to produce those drugs.

Yee and Hatch are two clear examples of the need for a clear focus on removing systemic barriers to honest governance. In this op-ed article, I’d like to look at two candidates who have taken principled stands against their own financial and electoral interest for the sake of integrity. The steps they’ve taken to demonstrate their commitment to reform in their own campaigns are noteworthy because they can be practiced regardless of policy: candidates don’t need to agree on abortion for both of them to run campaigns with integrity. We have to ask ourselves: why aren’t all the candidates doing this, and what does it say about them that they won’t?

First is Republican Kirk Jorgensen, a candidate for Congress in the 52nd District, who has taken a term-limit pledge to only serve six years in the House. He says it’s been a strong disincentive for special interests: “I don’t see big PACs wanting to invest in me. I mean, the term limit thing is a huge turnoff. They don’t see me as a long term investment.” Indeed, the vast majority of his donations are from individuals rather than committees.

While Jorgensen made it clear that there are good people in politics who have been in office for a long time, he says that it’s easy for the situation to change because “the glamour of politics is so persuasive. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it takes a couple years, that people forget what they’re there for.” Jorgensen’s stance is proof that the reform of the career politician begins with candidates who refuse to become them.

With a different but no less important idea is John Campbell, a candidate for Congress in the 53rd District, who’s pledged to take no campaign donations greater than $200. In the post-Citizens United era, it’s difficult to find anyone who’s not trying to hitch a ride on that billion-dollar train, but Campbell believes that his campaign should “serve as a template for running a cost-effective campaign – so that more people around the country can run as nonpartisan candidates.” With over $300 million spent on the 2012 elections, the only way cost-effective candidates can succeed is if voters realize that voluntary refusal of big money and perpetual power are powerful indicators of integrity.

Dear voters: This information is not just food for thought. When you make your choice in the June primaries, make sure you investigate who’s been funding your candidate. If your candidate won’t disclose their PAC donors, be sure to ask them why. Their campaign finance history can almost always be found on the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org, or with the Sunlight Foundation‘s excellent Influence Explorer tool. The first step to having politicians who represent us is to vote for the ones who run their campaigns with integrity. Candidates funded by special interests cannot be counted on to protect the public interest.

It’s past time we elected people who viewed politics as public service, not a profit opportunity.

Bryan Kim is CEO of the Moderate Majority, an independent grassroots coalition based in San Diego that is working to put an end to political partisanship.

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