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Money in Politics This Week

A roundup with the latest news highlighting the corrosive nature of money in New York State politics — and the need for public financing and robust campaign finance reform.

  • Syed Zaidi
November 3, 2012

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.

For more stories on an ongoing basis, follow the Twitter hashtag#moNeYpolitics and #fairelex.



Campaign Finance Reform Must Include Small-Donor Matching
In an editorial last week the Albany Times-Union urged New Yorkers to support critical initiatives for campaign finance reform, such as fully funding the New York State Board of Elections, closing loopholes, lowering contribution limits, and ensuring greater donor disclosure. Letters to the Editor penned by Alex Camarda, director of public policy and advocacy at Citizens Union and Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, emphasize that while all of these measures are necessary for empowering New Yorkers, the best mechanism to increase participation in state elections is a small-donor matching system. Matching contributions by small donors can inspire civic engagement by new donors in state elections, encourage candidates to be more accountable to their constituents and embolden new types of candidates to run for office. The state of Connecticut and New York City already match contributions by small donors in different ways, it is time for the Empire State to enact real reform. 

Even After Death, Campaign Committees Live On
Republican Assemblyman George Amedore recently received $2,000 for his State Senate race from the Committee to Re-elect Senator Stafford. The only problem is that State Senator Ronald Stafford has been dead for seven years. And yet his campaign committee, now being run by a former aide, has been doling out funds ever since. Unfortunately this scenario is all too common; the New York Public Interest Research Group has documented that former politicians in New York State have over $10 million sitting in their campaign coffers. This includes ghost committees like the one for State Senator Carl Kruger, who is now in prison for corruption. He used $1.5 million from his campaign fund for legal bills, and still has $400,000 in his campaign account. “After a state politician leaves office, it’s time to close shop, including the campaign fund,” argues a New York Times editorial. State Senator Liz Krueger has proposed a bill that would require former campaign funds be closed out within four years of an election and a year after the candidate’s death. The money could go to a charity, the state or a working campaign. Like many other campaign finance reform bills in the legislature, this one is not moving. As the New York Times put it, “The only real solution is to provide public matching funds for small contributions. That model should be the next step when Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislators return to work in Albany.”


Evidence Shows American Tradition Partnership May Have Coordinated with Campaigns
In 2010, American Tradition Partnership, a non-profit “social welfare” organization, bought a lawsuit against Montana challenging the state’s restrictions on independent campaign expenditures. In June of this year, the United States Supreme Court struck down Montana’s one-hundred year old ban on corporate political contributions in the American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock decision, extending the reach of Citizens United to state and local elections. Because of the way the group is organized, American Tradition Partnership, previously known as Western Tradition Partnership, is legally barred from coordinating with campaigns or producing electioneering materials without disclosing its donors. Recent documents uncovered by a Pro Publica investigation and a PBS Frontline Special demonstrate significant evidence of coordination between the group and several campaigns. Further inquiries reveal that mailers from the organization, targeting specific legislators in the Republican primaries, went beyond the scope of “issue ads.” Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices found that ATP’s purpose is “to directly influence candidate elections through surreptitious means.” All this deception “raises the specter of corruption of the electoral process,” according to the agency. The Supreme Court would do well to rethink the notion that independent expenditures cannot corrupt.

Outside Groups Outspend Candidates in the Most Competitive House Races
There is no doubt that outside groups have been playing a crucial role in the Presidential election this year. These groups, some with undisclosed expenditures and donors, may also determine the winners of several House races across the U.S. Analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice reveals that outside spending has been on par with party committees in the 25 House races deemed the most competitive. Take the 8th District of Minnesota for example; Republican incumbent Chip Cravaack spent $1.2 million compared to his Democratic challenger Rick Nolan, who spent $536,000. But outside spending in the race totals $ 5 million, including $1.7 million by the conservative American Action Network and $762,000 by the liberal House Majority Committee. “What does this mean for political parties that have long been the central force in elections? That outside spending is shifting power toward the big donors and corporate interests funding outside groups.” Small donors are the most minimal of participants in the most important Congressional races. Republican candidates raised only 7.6 percent of their campaign funds from small donations, relative to 12.4 percent by Democrats. “Politicians operate in a system in which it pays — literally — to ignore the public interest in favor of the agenda of special interests. The costs — in inefficient government, tax giveaways to big-spending industries, and a failure to act on the issues that matter most to the middle class — are staggering,” according to Adam Skaggs and Sundeep Iye from the Brennan Center. “To fix our government, we need to empower small donors in federal elections and restore regular voters to their rightful place at the center of our democracy.”

The Aftermath of Citizens United
As the first post-Citizens United Presidential election comes to a close, the negative effects of the decision are apparent. Unrestricted Super PACs, secret campaign spending, and wealthy mega-donors have been the hallmarks, with voters increasingly disgusted by the avalanche of money in politics. Outside groups such as Super PACs and politically active non-profits have spent $890 million thus far, three times the amount they spent in 2008. There are 700 Super PACs registered with the FEC. Sixty-seven percent of all Super PAC contributions originated from only 209 donors that gave $500,000 or more. Organizations that do not have to disclose their donors under the façade of “social welfare” non-profit status spent millions targeting candidates. Some 501(c)(4)s donated to Super PACs, establishing complicated money transfers to obscure their funding sources. Campaign spending by groups that do not disclose their donors has exceeded $265 million so far, more than triple the amount non-disclosing groups spent four years ago. According to Trevor Potter, former chairman of the FEC, “you have a real potential for corruption here, when the officeholders know where the money comes from, and the spenders know where it comes from, but the public doesn’t.”

Top Lobbyists of 2012
The Hill has released its list of the Top Lobbyists of 2012. The lame-duck session after the election may be the “busiest and most consequential of modern times.” Washington’s corps of lobbyists will be working with policy makers to shape decisions regarding taxes, expenditures and the budget, among others. Although some of the lobbyists are hired guns from K Street or corporate and trade association groups, others are broad based grassroots advocates that draw influence from the strength of their members rather than the money in their coffers. Among the most influential corporate lobbyists are Tucker Foote representing MasterCard, a former aid in the House Financial Services Committee, who will be engaged in a battle with retailers next year over swipe fees on credit cards, and Sid Ashworth of Northrop Grumman, who saved the company’s Global Hawk drones after the Pentagon threatened to cut them. On K Street, Mitch Feuer, a former Senate Banking Committee counsel is a top financial services lobbyist and a trusted name among banks and insurers. Fred Fraefe, of the Law Offices of Frederick H. Graefe, is a leading healthcare lobbyist among Democrats on Capitol Hill.