Editorial: Problems of money and perception
The idea that an elected official can be bought and sold in America amounts to a threat against the very nature of democracy. That is where the anxiety of the electorate resides when it comes to political fundraising.
In that sense, the debate over campaign finance reform often comes down to perception. Voters want assurances that their elected officials operate above the influence of money, and this is accomplished by clear laws and accurate, public accounting.
When legal clarity regarding fund-raising is absent, however, the way a candidate or official interprets the law becomes important to voters.
That is the slippery slope upon which Gov. Maggie Hassan finds herself since the New Hampshire Republican Party challenged three contributions – two for $10,000 and one for $25,000 – from labor organizations to the Friends of Maggie Hassan political action committee.
The Hassan campaign accepted all three donations June 12, the same day Hassan filed to run for re-election. Republicans say that violated state campaign laws.
In New Hampshire, campaigns are allowed to accept up to $5,000 from a single donor during the period before a candidate files to run for office.
But the rules for PACs are less clear. The key question is whether a PAC is free to give as much money as it wants to another PAC even when that PAC is tied to a candidate.
In simpler terms, the Hassan campaign is arguing that because Friends of Maggie Hassan existed as a pre-declaration PAC and not a candidate committee, the state’s limit on contributions did not apply. State Republicans don’t agree, and they’re citing a letter from then-Attorney General Michael Delaney to Secretary of State William Gardner in 2012 that stated: “Contributions to, and expenditures and reporting by, political committees on behalf of people who are not yet declared candidates are also governed by RSA 664:4 (the state law outlining prohibited political contributions).”
So now the matter is in the hands of lawyers. But regardless of the decision arrived at by the attorney general’s office, Hassan has a perception problem on her hands. A campaign’s broad interpretation of campaign finance laws is akin to a child hearing only what he or she wants to hear, and the political damage can be significant.
Take, for example, the fact that the $25,000 donation to the Friends of Maggie Hassan on June 12 came from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a group that happens to support the Northern Pass project.
With that tidbit, it’s possible that concerns about influence could enter the picture, and suddenly $25,000 has bought the campaign nothing but legal problems, anxiety for supporters and fuel for opponents who can spin the Hassan campaign’s interpretation of law into something much more sinister.
Lawyers are often celebrated for their ability to find loopholes, but voters are better served when campaigns put their effort into searching for the law’s intent.