Editor’s note: The video clip is at the end of this post.
The group doesn’t have a name. It doesn’t have a budget or a logo.
The eight individuals (all Democrats) who met on the steps of Burlington City Hall, however, are on a mission.
They are concerned about the impact of super PAC spending on Vermont elections, and they want the Legislature to pass campaign reforms that would require frequent and full disclosure of donations to super PACs and new advertising disclosure rules (including a requirement that photos of funders be included in broadcast ads).
Andrew Savage, who led an impromptu press conference with likeminded citizens this week, described the spending in this last election cycle — $1 million by Lenore Broughton, a conservative — as the “beginning of an arms race” between wealthy individuals over candidates.
Super PACs can spend limitless amounts of money on advertising, mailings, polls and other activities on behalf of candidates — the groups, however, are prohibited from coordinating their efforts with candidates.
The super PAC Vermonters First, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on broadcast advertising and mailings that supported Republican candidates, failed to gain ground in the last election (voters re-elected incumbents and in the open races supported Democrats). While conservatives focused on broad brush media campaigns, Democrats spent $1 million on get-out-the-vote efforts and high tech tracking systems to target voters. The Democratic “super majority” in the Legislature and statewide offices is now stronger than ever.
Just because super PAC spending wasn’t successful this time, doesn’t mean it won’t be in the next election, Savage says.
“Many observers are saying that despite all the outside spending by super PACs this election cycle they really didn’t have an impact on electoral outcomes, they successfully didn’t sway an election,” Savage said. “That may be true, but just because they were ineffective last time doesn’t mean they’re going away. I think we have every reason to believe they’re only going to come back stronger than before.”
Barring a constitutional amendment prohibiting unlimited spending by outside groups — an unlikely prospect — Savage says “Super PACs will continue to threaten democracy and threaten a spirited debate between candidates.”
Savage is no stranger to politics and the world of big campaign spenders — he served as communications director for Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., in Washington, D.C., and he is now working for David Blittersdorf, founder of All Earth Renewables and a big contributor to Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat.
Money has a role in politics, Savage said, and fiercely fought races between candidates are part of the electoral process. In the 2006 race between Welch and Adj. Gen. Martha Rainville, each candidate spent about $1 million, he said, but the candidates stood by issues they cared about and voters were able to decide who to support.
Vermonters are turned off by outside spending, he said, because it detracts from candidates’ own voices. “They muddy the debate, they confuse voters, they give an outsized voice to the very few and they’re not as accountable to the public as candidates are.”
He attributed the slightly lower than expected voter turnout — 65 percent of registered voters cast ballots this year as compared with 72 percent in 2008, the last presidential election — in part to voters feeling disenfranchised by super PAC spending.
Dan Smith, a former candidate for Burlington mayor and an executive with the Vermont State Colleges, underscored the impact of super PACs on the democratic process.
“Vermont is a place where we’ve let candidates speak for themselves, but unless we work really hard at it, in this environment I’m not sure that will last,” Smith said. “This effort is about transparency and making sure that we know who is speaking for whom. When we go to town hall in March our comments aren’t anonymous, and we don’t get speaking time based on the size of our bank accounts. In Vermont we’re a small place, we’re a special place which to my mind means we don’t need to accept the inevitability of large scale opaque spending.”
Savage encouraged candidates to disavow campaign spending by super PACs (as Republican Sen. Vince Illuzzi did in his race for auditor). Prominent Democrats have not said publicly whether they would be willing to do so in the next election cycle.
Though Shumlin has not said he would actively discourage super PAC funding on his behalf, at a press conference this week, he said he would support new disclosure rules.
“I hope to work together with legislative leadership to find ways to deal with the Citizens United decision,” the governor said. “In light of the growth of super PACs there are some limited things we could do to make it better, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do to make it a lot better.”
Shumlin supports instantaneous reporting of political gifts and identifying the individuals who have contributed to super PACs in political ads.
Savage’s proposal would require any contributor who has given more than a third of the money collected by a single super PAC to be identified in campaign advertising and the identification of super PAC ads as being funded by super PACs.
Vermont Secretary of State Jim Condos, a Democrat, has said he will ask the Legislature to adopt stricter campaign finance reporting requirements in the upcoming session. House Speaker Shap Smith, a Democrat, has indicated he will support more disclosure.
Condos proposes to increase the frequency of the filing schedule to require quarterly reports during off years with weekly or biweekly reports beginning after the primary during an election year. Condos also said he may suggest that the Legislature require super PACs to disclose, within 24 hours, any contribution exceeding $2,000 and made within 30 days of the election.
A disclosure bill would originate in the House Government Operations Committee; if there are potential constitutional conflicts, it would also be brought to the Judiciary Committee, and the Appropriations Committee would need to approve funding for the electronic campaign finance system.
Savage says if lawmakers don’t take action this legislative session the die will be cast for the 2014 election.
Previous attempts to reform the state’s campaign finance law, which was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997, have failed.
For more information, read “Super PACs will be back.”