Money in Politics This Week
Every Friday, the Brennan Center will be compiling the latest news concerning the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics—and the ongoing need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform. We’ll also be linking to dispatches from around the country highlighting the national scope of this crisis. This week’s links were contributed by Syed Zaidi.
CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORM AND ETHICS NEWS
Anti-Super PAC Super PACs Target Opponents of Common Sense Reform
Two organizations, Friends of Democracy and Protect Our Democracy, are prepared to utilize advertisements, mailers and pamphlets to promote the issue of fair elections to a more prominent position in ongoing political campaigns. The groups plan to funnel at least $600,000 into two New York State Senate races largely aimed at strident opponents of campaign finance reform. Friends of Democracy, founded by president and deputy chairman of Soros Fund Management, Jonathan Soros, has released ads to support Democratic State Senate candidate Cecilia Tkaczyk in Hudson Valley. Tkaczyk is a proponent of citizen-funded elections. The group has also sent mailers opposing Tkaczyk’s challenger, George Amedore, who currently serves as an Assemblyman for the 105th Assembly district. Although Amedore has backed calls for greater transparency, he agrees with other major elements of the current system. Protect Our Democracy, spearheaded by Sean Eldridge, president of Hudson River Ventures, has spent $100,000 on TV ads to support Republican State Senator Mark Grisanti of Buffalo, who is advocate of lower campaign contribution limits. Both groups recognize the irony of their initiatives. “Creating legislative reform is expensive, particularly on an issue like this where the resistance we’d get from special interest groups would be tremendous,” Mr. Eldridge stated. “We’re trying to affect elections from the outside in order to create a different system so that the type of spending we are doing would be less influential,” Soros emphasized.
Op-ed in Times Union urges New Yorkers to Demand Fair Elections
An excellent op-ed by Jessica Wisneski, campaign director for Citizen Action New York, appeared in the Times Union this week. Wisneski pointed out that even though problems for middle-class New Yorkers are growing, with soaring health care costs, mounting debt for housing and higher education, and drastic cuts to school aid, our state politicians are busy amassing campaign funds from large donors and corporations. “Our state government, which should be focused on helping New Yorkers and building our economy, is not doing its job. Why? Because it is sidetracked by the massive influence of big money from corporate donors who are looking for a return on their campaign contribution investment.” Governor Cuomo has entertained the idea of a special legislative session after the elections this year. New Yorkers must urge the Governor and their legislators to utilize the session to remove big money from the political process. To see where your candidates stand on the issue of people-powered elections, visit the Fair Elections website.
Cuomo: Special Session Will Still Include Campaign Finance Reform
This Thursday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled what items he would like to see in a special legislative session post-elections. In some encouraging news, Cuomo reiterated his support for “campaign finance reform” as a major agenda item, and floated reform of the Joint Commission on Public Ethics as another idea. He did not rule out the possibility of a legislative pay raise in exchange for finishing what he termed “the people’s business.”
Poll: Business Leaders Support Campaign Finance Reform
A poll of business leaders in New York State adds a new facet to the campaign for reforming the way we finance our elections. In a survey of 300 business leaders by Zogby Analytics on behalf of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), support for campaign finance reform and a small donor matching system was quite robust. Nearly 70 percent of respondents indicated that they support major changes to the way election campaigns are financed, and the same percentage believe that political contributions from corporations and labor unions have more influence over a candidate than the average voter. Furthermore 82 percent of business leaders support creating a system that encourages candidates to fund their campaigns through a broad base of small donors, and 72 percent insist that citizen-funded elections can provide incentives to encourage small donor contributions. Mike Petro, Acting President of CED, summed it up well: "business leaders are concerned about the effect of current fundraising practices because they believe the system as it exists does not serve the public's best interest or the interests of the business community."
New Jersey is the 9th State to Call for Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United
New Jersey is the latest state to join a slate of others that have passed resolutions to express discontent with the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court. The New Jersey Assembly Resolution (AR-86) calls on Congress to amend the U.S. Constitution to insist that “with regard to corporation campaign spending, a person means only a natural person for First Amendment protection of free speech.” The resolution passed 49 to 23, with six abstentions and two members not voting. The New Jersey Senate passed an identical resolution earlier this month. "We applaud New Jersey for standing up for democracy and urge other states to follow suit," stated Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause.
Unlimited Contributions and Limited Disclosure in Senate Races
Outside money has been steadily pouring into the Senate races. These groups have dropped $189.4 million into Senate races as of the beginning of this week, according to a post by the Sunlight Foundation. Super PACs are responsible for 30 percent of the spending in these races, accounting for $57.7 million of the reported outside expenditures thus far. Party Committees take the smallest share of the pie, spending $50.9 million by comparison. The biggest chunk however has come from 501(c)(4) organizations, what Sunlight refers to as “non-committee non-party organizations.” These entities have dumped $80.8 million into Senate election contests—that is 42.7 percent of all outside money. Non-profit “social welfare” organizations hold two advantages compared to either Super PACs or political parties. Unlike Super PACs they do not have to disclose their donors and only report spending within 60 days of an election. And unlike party committees they can raise unlimited sums of money. The four biggest spenders in the Senate races have been the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Crossroads GPS, Majority PAC, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Sunlight Foundation post details other major players in the game as well as the key states that are being targeted.
Facing Fierce Attack Ads, Congressmen Offer Absurd “Solution”
Amid the barrage of vicious attacks by unaccountable and often untraceable outside groups, some Congressional incumbents are suggesting that the system would be better served with no limits on direct contributions to candidates and political parties. Representative Dan Lungren (R-California) has faced an onslaught of radio advertisements and automated phone calls against his campaign, in what has become one of the most expensive House races in the country. Mr. Lungren has drafted a bill that would remove all limits on individual contributions to candidates and all limits on transfers between candidates and political parties, although it would mandate the immediate disclosure of contributions.“What I’m trying to do is transform the system so people participating as candidates can be held responsible for what is said,” Mr. Lungren stated. Unfortunately, as Public Campaign points out, for someone who can’t afford to contribute $500, let alone $500,000 or $5 million, free speech doesn’t feel all that free. Eliminating contribution limits would place elections more squarely in the hands of a small elite. On the other hand a majority of Americans from across the political spectrum support common sense restrictions on contributions and applaud efforts to raise the voices of regular people in our political process. Rather than trying to collect even bigger checks, Congress would do better to consider the Fair Elections Now Act (HR 1404 and S 750) and the Grassroots Democracy Act (HR 6426), which propose small donor matching systems to finance our elections.
Small Donations via Text Gaining Traction
Six-figure checks by billionaires have received a lot of attention in this election, but small donors appear to be gaining some ground as well. The FEC approved text donations to political campaigns this summer. Analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project illustrates that they are now becoming a notable part of political fundraising. Nearly 10 percent of donors to the presidential candidates have contributed through text messages or smart phone apps. Text donations are limited to $50 per month and $200 per election cycle, making it a convenient and empowering vehicle for small donors. “The fact that in less than a month, 10 percent of donors have contributed this way is impressive,” said Aaron Smith, a research associate at Pew. Disclosure reports suggest that the Obama campaign has been far more aggressive in pulling in money through texts, spending $85,000 on fees to third-party aggregators in September compared to less than $1,200 for Romney.