Katy Burns: Not-so-funny money flooded local House race

Last modified: Tuesday, November 27, 2012
In many respects, Mary Beth Walz typifies a traditional member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

So why are a couple of oil billionaires from Texas picking on her?

New Hampshire’s citizen legislature is filled with people like Mary Beth: folks who are actively giving back to their communities. They donate their time and energy to churches, charities and nonprofit organizations as well as civic boards and the like. They are often active politically in their respective parties. They are generally exemplary citizens whose energetic volunteerism allows the cheapskate state to function surprisingly well.

A longtime resident of Bow, Mary Beth and her husband, Harry Judd, have raised their children here. In fact, one savvy child or another has become a staple at town meeting, helping their more tech-ignorant elders to run PowerPoint presentations.

Mary Beth and Harry share a history of civic involvement, in the town and in the state and in their political party. They’re Democrats. He is on the board of selectmen. She served several terms as a state representative before losing her seat two years ago when – thanks in large part to an abysmal off-year voter turnout – Republicans retook the State House big time.

During her time in the House, Mary Beth was known as smart, hard-working and articulate. She worked to master the details of proposals before the House. The Granite State historically has been rich with such volunteer legislators of both parties.

After she lost her seat two years ago, she watched the State House antics from the sidelines. And, prodded by a number of her friends and neighbors, she decided to re-enter the fray and signed up as a candidate for her old seat. She contacted those who’d earlier given her small donations – usually $25 or so – and dragged her signs out of storage and deployed them around town. Mary Beth’s bright red signs stand out.

She uses them in every election, and election night she collects each and every one. She is thrifty and anti-landscape clutter – good qualities for a New Hampshire legislator, whatever her party.

The signs and inexpensively printed campaign literature she and her volunteers deliver door to door are generally her only campaign expenses.

So you can imagine her shock – and that of others in her district – when, shortly before the election, mail carriers delivered to every house in the district not one but two expensively printed, full-color placards denouncing her as a “liberal” who has “consistently voted against New Hampshire taxpayers” and wants to “increase government spending and debt.”

And who sent these little gems of negative politicking into our homes? Why, Americans for Prosperity, what they call “a nonprofit political advocacy group” backed financially by the incredibly rich Koch brothers, David and Charles, and others they solicit.

A global network

It’s worth noting that the Kochs, whose Koch Industries now encompasses a global network of corporations, got their initial start by inheriting a fortune founded in the Texas oil patch. They devote billions to advancing conservative causes, including but by no means limited to promotion of fossil fuels and defeat of environmental regulation and legislation.

AFP is one of a raft of mostly if not exclusively conservative super-PACs and alleged “charitable” nonprofits (enabled by recent court decisions) which have been rightfully excoriated for unleashing the deafening torrent of negative advertising that has so enraged and disheartened ordinary voters in recent months. In the presidential race as well as U.S. Senate and House elections, untold millions of dollars were spent in trying to defeat candidates who displeased the plutocrats. Often we never even learn who the donors of this tidal wave of money are.

It’s been a disgusting spectacle, but at least the frenzy of spending makes some perverted sense when the stakes are as big as they are in presidential and congressional races.

But a legislative race in tiny New Hampshire? An attempt to defeat one of 400 representatives in this little state? Where, typically, House candidates spend less than $1,000 on their races?

And Mary Beth Walz was hardly the only one so targeted. One estimate was that close to 100 candidates, not all of them Democrats, were hit with negative mailings from the Koch brothers. A number were ousted legislators seeking to regain their seats.

It seemed, though, that all were candidates who had something in common. They were what we used to call “good government” types. They were smart, hard-working, issue-oriented and articulate enough to persuade others to join them.

National trend

And this happened in other states, too, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein. It happened in state legislative races across the nation, including in other backwater states which had until now escaped the pollution of big money, and particularly big (and often untraceable) money from outside.

A lot of pundits are now relishing the fact that the shadowy donors have little if anything to show for the torrent of cash they spent. People, including I suspect a fair number of Republicans, are particularly entertained by the fact that Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of the richest men in the world, spent probably in excess of $60 million on eight candidates, all of whom lost.

On the other hand, Adelson himself shrugged off wasting this staggering amount of money. “Paying bills,” he called it. “That’s how you spend money.” He’ll be back.

Sadly, the flow of unlimited cash flowing into campaigns will continue to be the case unless somehow the Supreme Court can be persuaded – a doubtful proposition – that what is happening now distorts democracy and insults the Constitution.

But the U.S. Congress should at least have the guts to make such financing as transparent as possible and to tighten what’s allowed under “charitable” tax laws.

Now, depending on the organization, we may never find out the identity of those seeking to manipulate our elections.

This will not be the last year shadowy big outside money tries to influence the outcome of elections even here in the Granite State.

This time, Mary Beth Walz and a number of those others who were targeted won their races. And the red Walz signs were, as always, whisked away before dawn Wednesday.

But the next election?

(Monitor columnist Katy Burns lives in Bow.)