In Memoriam: Herbert E. Alexander
The Distinguished Professor Emeritus at USC was an expert in political finance and election reform whose work ‘set the standard.’April 1, 2008
Herbert E. Alexander, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at USC, who during his long career was known as the dean of political finance and election reform studies, died of cancer in Rockville, Md., on April 3. He was 80.
Alexander authored 20 books and more than 375 monographs and articles in which he described and critiqued how politics, in the United States and elsewhere, is financed.
Every four years, beginning in 1960, he published a study of how the presidential and other federal election campaigns were financed, describing in detail how candidates and committees raised and spent money in search of electoral victory.
The series started with Financing the 1960 Election and concluded with Financing the 1992 Election, published before Alexander retired from his university teaching position in 1998.
In the early years of his career, before effective federal campaign finance disclosure laws were enacted, Alexander had to rely on the extensive list of contacts he developed, as well as on his own persistence, to uncover the information he needed to generate his studies.
He attended every Democratic and Republican National Convention from 1960 to 1992, where he met with political party officials and campaign operatives as well as political fundraisers and donors, from whom he drew the information that informed his narratives.
For 40 years Alexander directed the work of the Citizens’ Research Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted exclusively to studying and informing the public about political finance.
The foundation, which was founded in 1958 by William H. Vanderbilt and his family, received major financial support through the years from a number of prominent foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corp., the Joyce Foundation, the Stern Family Fund and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Alexander presided over the foundation first in Princeton, N.J., and subsequently at USC.
On the occasion of Alexander’s 80th birthday in 2007, Michael Malbin, a political science professor at the State University of New York, Albany, and executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, wrote a personal note to his colleague.
“For 40 years, your work set the standard,” Malbin wrote. “That you were able to keep your organization and the integrity of its work going for so long is a monument to the importance and quality of what you were doing.”
Alexander was born in Waterbury, Conn. He earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina, a master’s from the University of Connecticut and a doctorate in political science from Yale University in 1958.
He taught at Princeton University and at USC and also served briefly as a visiting faculty member at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1961–62 Alexander served as executive director of the President’s Commission on Campaign Costs under President John F. Kennedy. He subsequently served as consultant to President Kennedy on legislation based on the President’s Commission report. The commission’s work initiated the modern era of political finance reform.
Alexander advised numerous federal, state and local election agencies. He was a consultant to the Senate Watergate investigations and to the U. S. Comptroller General, who in 1974 and 1975 headed the Office of Federal Elections, the precursor to the Federal Election Commission.
He also served as a consultant to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission and later as a consultant in the process of founding of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
In 1996 Alexander received the Samuel J. Eldersveld Career Achievement Award from the American Political Science Association, honoring a lifetime of outstanding scholarly and professional contributions. In 2004, he received an award from the Council of Government Ethics Laws for noteworthy work in the field.
For 20 years Alexander served as chairman of the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee on Political Finance and Political Corruption.
In that capacity he edited two pioneering books comparing the American system of political finance with those of other countries. As a testament to his life’s work as a scholar of international reputation, in 2001, 23 academics collaborated on the publication of Foundations for Democracy: Approaches to Comparative Political Finance (Nomos), a series of essays written in his honor.
In 1998, Alexander relocated to Silver Spring, Md.
Although retired from USC, he remained active in the field he helped to create. He acted as a consultant to the International Foundation for Election Systems, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute and the Organization of American States.
Offering congratulations on the occasion of Alexander’s 80th birthday, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, wrote, “You are America’s foremost authority on campaign finance, and your body of work will forever guide those in the field.”
Prior to his death, Alexander donated his personal library, including all of his own writings, to the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization affiliated with the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
The Alexander Collection will be available to scholars to carry on the work of political campaign finance research and reporting.
He was preceded in death by his wife, Nancy G. Alexander, and granddaughter Victoria Alexander. He is survived by three sons, Michael (Sandra) of East Windsor, N.J., Andrew (Lisa) of Toronto, Canada, and Kenneth (Susan) of Olney, Md.; five grandchildren; and his companion, Barbara B. Seidel.
Services will be held on Sunday at the Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapel in Rockville, Md.
Memorial donations may be made to the National Jewish Fund.