Unequivocal declarations and pledges are nothing new in political contests. Every candidate for state and federal office receives handfuls of requests for specific policy pledges on a weekly basis. The Grover Norquist no-new-taxes pledge is the most infamous — mostly for tripping-up GOP leaders suffering from buyer’s remorse. Yet other causes, good and bad, continue to flood the mailboxes of contenders.
Signing any kind of pledge, even “good” ones, can be risky business though.
There’s a new kind of political purity pledge making the rounds, but this time it’s mostly Democrats signing-on. The non-partisan group Clean Slate Now is collecting signatures from candidates for public office at all levels across the nation. Their goal is to get special interest money out of politics through promising to not accept contributions from political action committees. From their website:
Democracy is undermined in a profound way when we finance campaigns from wealthy interests who contribute to buy excessive political influence. To get corrupting money out of politics, we advocate for candidates who refuse special interest PAC campaign contributions and agree to run respectful campaigns. There aren’t many of these candidates, but there are some, and the list is growing.
“There aren’t many” is an understatement. Thus far nationally, they have recruited 13 Democrats, 4 Republicans, and 4 Independents. With one from Michigan, Betsy Coffia, a Democrat running for the open 104th state House seat.
Coffia is among a small number of Michigan House candidates that have opted to turn away contributions from PACs, including those from unions and progressive groups. She is joined by Robert Kennedy, running for the 106th. Without having signed the pledge, his website put it this way:
Other candidates are making statements alluding to their stand against PAC dollars, without the full-throated commitment of Coffia and Kennedy.
- Joan Braush, running for the 98th says ” We are going to be raising our money just like Barack Obama did — from individual donors.”
- Dave Morgan, a contender for the 62nd seat, describes himself as “A leader with integrity and the courage to fight the very special interest groups looking to buy Lansing”.
- Mike Moroz, a candidate for the 59th, says nothing of money, but puts distance between himself and the Democratic Party, saying: “I am independent minded, beholden to no one and will vote an informed conscience that represents my constituents. I will not be disabled by outside interests or party politics”.
Independence at What Cost?
Is snubbing union-based financial support, and all PAC money, including that from genuine grassroots groups, a winning campaign strategy? Is unilateral disarmament truly a good idea in this post Citizens United world?
In our latest Michigan Policast report, I posed that very question to the statewide expert on Michigan campaign finance reform, Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the non-partisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Robinson railed against undisclosed “dark money”, Super PAC issue ads, and the overall corrupt path our campaign finance laws have taken, but he cautioned against these purity pledges. In our interview, Robinson said this of PAC money:
I have never seen any kind of problem about political action committees, at least as originally conceived. They started-out as a way for people of like-mindedness, shared interests, to band together to amplify their influence in the political process.
Robinson explained the problem in Michigan as one of a lack of limitations on individual contributions to PACs, as illustrated by a group called Citizens for Michigan. The law requires 25 “unique” contributors to establish a PAC. This group consisted of two $5 members, twenty-three that ponied-up a single buck each, and one guy who dropped $200,000 on the venture. That’s corruption — no doubt.
But not all PACs are bad, and those of genuine grassroots origins should not be painted with the same brush. Robinson agrees:
At its heart, the idea of a PAC was a democracy idea — that many people of similar circumstances could band together. It’s been twisted in a lot of ways. But, I would encourage people to take a second look before they unilaterally decided that political action committees were bad somehow.
Robinson’s point is well-taken: It’s not the concept of PACs themselves that is evil, but the corruptive effect of lax regulatory oversight and the lack of transparency that give them a bad name among progressives.
In the absence of reform, pledging to forego PAC dollars is a brave and admirable stand. Yet, there are downsides to consider with the no-PAC pledge. The obvious one would be fundraising. Candidates that accept only individual contributions must exhaust considerably more energy in that pursuit. For incumbents, that could leave a bad impression — that they’re spending too much time focused on fundraising, and too little on lawmaking.
Choosing to eschew PACs runs another risk — that of not being taken seriously by potential supporters and endorsers, including the crucial nod from editorial boards of local papers. Fair, or not, a candidate’s ability to assemble a sizable war chest factors into the equation.
In Coffia’s case, her team has been active for quite some time priming the fundraising pump. To date, her campaign has banked just under $23,000, from 309 individuals. She’ll need more though when she squares-off against her Republican challenger in November. There are eight GOP candidates vying for the seat, currently depleting their funds in a primary battle, which is good news for Coffia’s camp.
The 104th will prove to be an interesting race. Republicans can’t afford to lose the seat. Third-party issue ads, robo-calls and mailers may play a significant role — it could be decided by Super PACs battling it out, regardless of the convictions of the candidates.
Until the day Citizens United is no longer the law of the land, anti-PAC pledges remain a gutsy move.
Best of luck to those committed to a pure campaign.
Listen to the entire Michigan Policast interview with Rich Robinson by clicking here.