My Turn: We need to ‘shine a light on dark money’

Last modified: 7/4/2015 12:51:47 AM
For the dreamers among us, every four years come new reasons for hope: Maybe This Time, Maybe This Guy, Maybe at Last. Then comes the election, and (sometimes) the honeymoon: the new guy rolls out his plans, reaffirms his promises; there are rumblings in the direction of change. The months pass – and by the time the snow has melted on a new spring the rumblings have grown fainter, the promises are meeker and our dreams have begun their slow fade. By the summer following the election, we’re kicking ourselves for ever having believed. It’s the same way every time.

It doesn’t have to be; it really doesn’t. The plans and promises, whatever they were – on taxes, education, immigration, gun control, the deficit, the climate – were no doubt genuine. The will to change, and the means to it, were probably there. Perhaps even the votes – if only the votes belonged to the men and women, the elected officials, who cast them or signed them into law.

But they don’t. The votes belong to different men and women, with names some us have never heard: Sheldon Adelson, Norman Braman, Alice Walton, David Koch, Fred Eychaner, Paul Singer, Woody Johnson. These are the people – billionaires all – who control the hundreds of millions of dollars that go to the congressional and presidential candidates who pay the closest homage to their goals. For Norman Braman this season, it will be Marco Rubio; for Woody Johnson, Jeb Bush. Alice Walton, at $34 billion said to be the third-richest woman in the world, has close ties to the Clintons and may be a power behind Hillary’s campaign. David Koch is reportedly still being courted, but is leaning toward Scott Walker. Sheldon Adelson is said to favor Rubio, though as of late April, when he hosted what was described as an “audition” in Las Vegas, he was still officially on the fence.

That’s the reality of things. To be a serious contender for national office today, you pretty much have to have Big Money behind you – and for a presidential candidate, there’s just no other way. Not only will any serious aspirant to the 2016 White House need at least one pet billionaire; (s)he’ll also need a “Super PAC” – a theoretically independent committee that can accept unlimited donations but must report their sources. And finally, to get around this disclosure requirement, (s)he’ll want to have some “dark money” in place. That would be in the form of what the IRS terms a 501(c)4, a nonprofit organization the tax code says should be “operated exclusively to promote social welfare” – and therefore is not required to disclose its sources. Never mind that the designation was intended to benefit such groups as Common Cause or the Sierra Club; because political groups are technically under the same umbrella, a 501(c)4 is the ideal vehicle for the very rich to buy influence anonymously – unknown to all, of course, but the candidates whose support they are buying.

So this is the system we have (thanks in large part to the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision). It is sleazy, plainly unfair and morally repellent. But it’s the only realistic way to get elected to high office in our country today.

It doesn’t have to be. Not as long as 90 percent of us, according to a 2014 poll, continue to feel as we do: that the system is wrong and needs to be fixed. Indeed, it would be hard to find anyone (outside of the Big Money interests themselves and the lobbyists who support them) who seriously believes it’s okay to buy elections. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Least of all the candidates themselves, most of whom would like nothing better than to be reprieved from the thousands of hours they spend (up to 50 percent of their time, by some estimates) kowtowing for dollars.

So lack of support isn’t the problem. The problem is even simpler: that the system is so entrenched, so unyieldingly calcified, that fewer than 10 percent of us (according to the same poll) believe anything can be done to fix it. But raise that number to 30 or 40, and you’d start to see change overnight.

It’s happening already, all over the country. In Maryland, a Republican governor last month signed a law to fund the state’s elections with public monies; in Montana, a bipartisan legislature in April passed sweeping campaign finance legislation – the Montana Disclose Act – effectively ending the flow of dark money in the state. In Maine, a grassroots coalition last month collected 80,000 signatures in support of a November referendum designed to “shine a light on dark money.”

In our own state, where “Granny D” Haddock 15 years ago put campaign reform squarely on the radar with her 3,200-mile cross-country walk, a growing movement of citizens – the New Hampshire Rebellion – is continuing in her tradition. For the second straight year, their band of activists have been marching from one end of the state to the other – Portsmouth, Nashua, Keene, Concord, Lebanon, Dixville Notch – in support of their goal of getting money out of politics, and putting the issue on the candidates’ agenda. Their next scheduled walk, expected to be the largest yet, will go from Rochester to Portsmouth on Saturday, the Fourth of July, ending with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence and a celebration in Prospect Park.

”A lot of people don’t have much faith in our democracy,” says Dan Weeks, a NH Rebellion leader. “(They) would like to see something change, but don’t know where to begin. It sure isn’t going to change within the halls of power, so the only hope we can think of . . . is to put ourselves out there . . . our bodies, our time, our determination . . .

Because ultimately, that’s our only hope – when the people demand that government really work for us.”

(Geoffrey Douglas is an author and lives in West Lebanon.)

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