Supreme Court Rulings on Campaign Finance Opens Door to Big Money Influence in Local Elections

Posted June 25, 2014

MP3 Interview with Adam Crowther, researcher with Public Citizen's Congress Watch, conducted by Scott Harris

koch

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission case in 2010, the floodgates of unlimited and unaccountable money from corporations and unions in U.S. politics were opened wide, very wide. But while many progressive activist groups, which opposed the high court decision, traced the exponential increase of money influencing the outcome of federal elections, there was little attention being paid to the effect the Citizens United ruling had on local politics.

A new report from Public Citizen’s Congress Watch titled, “Outside Spenders, Local Elections,” tracks the impact of large amounts of money targeting local elections given by the conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which was founded by the billionaire brothers, Charles and David Koch.

The report focuses on six local elections in which Americans for Prosperity injected funds and organizers to pursue its agenda of reducing government spending, lowering taxes, weakening labor unions, making the judicial system more friendly to big business and opposing environmental regulations. The local elections examined in the report included school board elections in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Douglass County, Colorado; a mayor’s race in Lakeview Minnesota, city and county elections in Coralville, Iowa and Iron County Wisconsin – and a zoo tax referendum in Columbus, Ohio. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Adam Crowther, a researcher with Public Citizen's Congress Watch and author of the report. Here, he outlines how outside money in local political contests has hijacked issues of concern to these communities, and what can be done to place limits on how money is raised and spent on elections.

ADAM CROWTHER: As more and more reports are trickling in about spending by these national groups in local elections, we sort of wanted to take a deeper dive into what’s actually going on and we centered our research around one particular group, which is Americans For Prosperity, which is presumably one of many groups that are presumably funded by the Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch. So, we started doing news clip searches sort of saying, you know, where is Americans For Prosperity spending? What elections are they getting involved in and we found a number of sort of hyper-local races across the country. I think the smallest race we found was a county in northern Wisconsin called Iron County. There’s only 6,000 people that live there and Americans For Prosperity, which in 2012 had $115 million in revenue, was sending out mailers and canvassing on behalf of essentially a mining company that wanted to open an open-pit mine there. And so, it was just really surprising the degree to which, this group is engaging in elections. You know, a couple of years ago, you would have never expected to see a national group. Something that is increasingly surprising, I think, when we think about how local elections should be conducted, it’s very surprising.

BETWEEN THE LINES: It seems like, from reading the summary of your report, it appears that anti-union activity is at the heart of what some of the Koch brothers are targeting in these elections.

ADAM CROWTHER: I think that’s right. And one of the races in Douglass County, Colorado, it was a school board race, and Americans For Prosperity spent about $350,000 to preserve the sitting board, which had taken actually a lot of steps to weaken teachers’ unions in the county. Another case in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2014, the sitting school board had actually agreed to negotiate a contract with the teachers union there, which had presumably been banned by recent legislation in Wisconsin. A third case, up in Lakeview, Minnesota, which is a pretty small city up there, a candidate for mayor who had previously served on city council voted to preserve a part-time unionized electrician job while he was on city council, which was the sole justification for Americans For Prosperity engaging in that particular race.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Has there been a backlash effect, such as these large, well-funded political organizations coming into a small town where opponents to what these groups are doing can point out and say, “these folks don’t even live here. They don’t even live in our town and they’re trying to influence these elections”? Has there been any kind of reversals they’ve suffered because of it?

ADAM CROWTHER: Yeah, I think you’re on the right track. I think when you look at the actual results of the elections, it’s about a wash. Of the six elections we looked at closely, I think you could reasonably say that, you know, Americans For Prosperity their preferred candidate or their preferred policy position, they won out about half the time, in three of the cases. In the other three, they were sort of a little bit less successful. But, what we do see sort of percolating under the surface of these races is a sentiment among local citizens of, you know, “Why is this group here?” Local election are sort of the last, sort of, bastion of pure democracy in a lot of ways, it’s friends and family who are running for office. And I think that one of the bigger issues is that issues that are really important to local citizens are being pushed aside a little bit when the terms of the debate are shifted because Americans For Prosperity can drop $350,000. It really, I think upsets, the balance of how local elections are run.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Just a last question for you here, what’s the remedy for this in your view, with the Supreme Court ruling, how can citizens reform the campaign finance system to limit the outside influence of millionaires and billionaires like the Koch brothers and these giant corporations? There is a high degree of difficulty in passing what many groups are working for, which is a constitutional amendment that would override what the Supreme Court let loose there in terms of the Citizens United decision, releasing unregulated and unaccountable money.

ADAM CROWTHER: Yeah, that’s a great question and I think we’ve actually reached the point where we sort of have to call for a constitutional amendment. The Supreme Court recently, with Citizens United and McCutcheon has sort of redefined what the First Amendment means. They basically said that spending on elections, contributing to elections, influencing politics is a protected form of speech, it’s in the Constitution. So, at this point, the only way to really try to roll that back is to change the Constitution, to add an amendment to the Constitution that basically says that Congress, the legislature, can pass reasonable limits on how much money can be raised and spent in politics to basically let Congress have more control over what’s going on in our elections right now. You know, a couple years ago, it would have seemed maybe a little bit crazy that we would need a constitutional amendment to sort of govern our elections, but I think that the spending has gotten so out of control that it’s actually one of the last options we have left.

For more information on Public Citizen's Congress Watch, visit citizen.org/congress/. This transcript was compiled by Evan Bieder.

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