About a decade ago, after John Rowland was chased from office, the state’s leaders decided once and for all to reduce the influence of campaign money on politics and government. The legislature passed a sweeping campaign finance reform bill, which, among other things, instituted a public finance system for state campaigns and banned campaign donations from state contractors.
So, how did that turn out?
To give you an idea, this week the State Elections Enforcement Commission ruled on a case where the CEO of Northeast Utilities, which quite obviously does plenty of business with the state, sent an email to company managers prodding them to donate money to the state Democratic Party’s federal campaign account in support of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s re-election bid. Sadly, while the SEEC noted that the email “violates the spirit and intent of the Connecticut state contractor ban,” the case was dismissed 5-0 because the email asked for donations to be sent to a federal account, not a state one.
That’s quite the loophole.
Basically, what’s happened since campaign finance reform was passed is that the money hasn’t stopped or even slowed down — it’s just found a different way to get where wealthy donors and activists want it to be. Campaign finance reform was supposed to be like a dam, but really all it did was chuck a big rock in the middle of a wide stream. There was a splash, and some of the water was forced onto a different course, but the flow never really stopped.
Right now a lot of the money is flowing into political action committees, so-called “super PACs,” which are allowed to raise and spend as much money as they want, as long as they don’t actually coordinate with campaigns. However, a lot of these organizations tend to have close ties to campaigns and political parties.
The PAC “Grow Connecticut,” for instance, is running ads opposing Gov. Malloy. Their ads focus on how miserable everyone is because of the economy, which is a similar message to the one Tom Foley is peddling. This may be because it’s run by a woman who was caught up in an election scandal last year, when her former super PAC came under fire for paying Foley’s pollster. The biggest donors to Grow Connecticut, according to the disclaimer at the end of the ad, are the Republican Governors Association, a little-known Colorado-based group called Citizens for a Sound Government, and Greenwich resident, former diplomat, and Foley ally Craig Stapleton.
Republicans are by no means alone in this. There’s a PAC called “Connecticut Forward” that was created by the Democratic Governors Association. They have already spent at least $1.25 million on ads, including one bashing Tom Foley over his disastrous press conference in Sprague during the primary campaign. The Republicans have filed an election complaint over the group, pointing out that Malloy was a member of the DGA and has fundraised for them in the past.
Both sides are using fear of the other side to pump even more money into their campaigns. Stapleton told the Connecticut Post that “there’s a lot of union money and concentrated public-sector employees who are funding campaigns. We need to offset it, and that’s why these entities are being set up.” Democrats, on the other hand, raised the minimum amount that could be contributed to the state party based on fears that Republican outside groups would outspend them.
What we’re left with is the kind of campaign money arms race that ensures the wealthy, the connected, and the best of the fundraisers have plenty of leverage over the political process. Tom Foley, for example, was a major fundraiser for George W. Bush’s campaign, and he managed to land a job in Iraq and an ambassadorship.
So how do we fix this mess? Sadly, there’s not a lot that we can do, because at the federal level campaign money is becoming less and less regulated. The Citizens United decision, coupled with a Congress that has zero appetite for looking into campaign finance, has all but guaranteed a cash free-for-all. Connecticut can tighten up some regulations, but actually stopping that flow of money is going to be viciously hard.
Meanwhile, in New Haven, the man who started it all has been on trial for campaign finance violations during his time as a drive-time host on WTIC. John Rowland, at least, is always there to remind us of why getting money out of politics is the right thing to do, no matter how difficult it might be.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This op-ed originally included two youtube video embeds of television commercials from the PACs Grow Connecticut and Connecticut Forward. The videos have since been removed from youtube.