OP-ED | The Long, Quiet Death of Campaign Finance Reform
This week Democratic leaders floated the possibility of suspending public financing of campaigns as a way to close the current budget gap. Even though they backed down under pressure, it’s just one more sign that the vital and necessary campaign finance reform laws passed after Gov. John G. Rowland’s resignation are being eroded down to nothing.
Legislative leaders are trying to hammer out some kind of way to balance a budget that is increasingly in the red, and one of the ideas that Democrats suggested was to suspend the Citizens’ Election Program, which publicly finances campaigns for state offices and the legislature, for the 2016 cycle. They were eventually forced to reverse course after young legislators protested the move and former Gov. M. Jodi Rell resurfaced to shake her finger at them, which is a relief.
However, it doesn’t change the fact that Democrats, once the champions of campaign finance reform, have been undermining the spirit and intent of those reforms for years.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was the first governor elected using the public finance system, but that was before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and other court cases unleashed a tidal wave of untraceable money into elections through so-called “SuperPACs.” Money at the federal level suddenly could flow a lot more freely, and Democrats, as usual, panicked that Republicans were about to drown them in cash.
That’s one of the reasons why they began to chip away at protections here in Connecticut. In 2013 the legislature loosened campaign finance rules in order to allow higher-dollar donations to the state party, and Malloy vetoed a bill that would have forced corporations and independent groups to disclose donors when running ads.
In 2015, Republicans actually tried to make it more difficult for the state parties to raise and spend money, but after the measure passed with bipartisan support in the House it died in the Senate.
But it’s not just about what the legislature is doing. In 2013 the CEO of Northeast Utilities, now Eversource Energy, sent an email to employees “inviting” them to support Gov. Malloy’s re-election by donating money. Republicans cried foul, but because the email suggested donating to the state Democratic Party’s federal account and not their state account, it wasn’t technically illegal. The State Elections Enforcement Commission was forced to drop the matter, but not before scolding Democrats. They concluded that, while legal, the solicitation was “. . .both offensive and disturbing and violates the spirit and intent of the Connecticut state contractor ban.”
And then there’s the mailer mess. The SEEC and the Democratic Party are fighting it out over whether Democrats illegally spent money on a mailing during the 2014 campaign. Once again, Democrats are claiming that they followed federal law, not state law, which effectively undercuts state finance reforms in any case.
Basically, Democrats have constantly been making end-runs around reforms they once wholeheartedly supported. This is certainly not true of all Democrats in the legislature, especially more liberal members and younger members, but the fact that this was proposed by the leadership at all gives us a good sense of their priorities.
All of this makes me wonder: if Rowland had been a Democrat, would they ever have bothered passing campaign finance reform in the first place?
In any case, campaign finance reform in general and public financing of campaigns specifically still exist, for now, but there’s no guarantee they’ll survive long in an age where balancing the budget is far more important to voters and party leaders than clean campaigns and fighting corruption. The post-Rowland spirit of reform is gone, maybe for good.
Did it really make a difference anyway? Candidates like not having to raise money and it was certainly more difficult for state contractors to buy influence, but it’s hard to tell if elections got either cleaner or more fair. It mostly seems like the money just flowed into different channels, especially at the federal level, once the originals were dammed off.
Sadly, one of the enduring truths about money in politics is that it’s nearly impossible to stop. If we really want to make our campaigns fair, action needs to be taken at the federal, state, and local level to strongly restrict campaign spending from outside sources and limit donations to candidates and parties. Otherwise, campaign finance will continue to be just as murky and corrupt as ever.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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