Citizens United Comes To Boulder
published by the Boulder Daily Camera
November 4, 2017 at 5:41 pm
By MARK WALLACH
Boulderites, almost unanimously progressive, like to imagine that we do things a bit differently here. When we conduct our City Council elections we do so with very strict campaign finance limits, with the clear intention of not allowing the deepest pocket to prevail simply because it is deep. We require our candidates to make periodic filings of even the limited amounts they are permitted to raise and spend, as we value transparency as well as limited campaign spending.
How very quaint. How old school. This is 2017, and we now have deep-pocketed groups in Boulder who know better what is good for us, and who believe that winning at all costs is more important than adhering to these principles of limited expenditures and fiscal transparency. And in so doing they have brought the misguided principle of Citizens United to Boulder: he who has the most money wins.
As you may recall, Citizens United is the infamous Supreme Court decision that disallowed limitations on spending in election campaigns by corporations, when such spending was independent of the campaigns themselves. At the time President Obama described it as “undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates”.
Here is how it works: first you form the appropriate corporate entity that allows you to raise all the money you want without ever disclosing who your donors are or how much they have contributed. Then you conduct what is laughingly called “issue advocacy.” This means that you cannot tell anyone who to vote for. But you can print literature that identifies the candidates you prefer; you can print the biographies and photos of those candidates; and you can state that you endorse them. But because you have not used the magic words, “Vote for Joe,” you have complied with the letter, if not the spirit, of the law. And you can spend an unlimited amount in support of the candidates you are allegedly not directly supporting.
This is the politics of the Koch brothers. Deep pockets and undisclosed contributions attempting to bend our elections to bring the City Council in line with their agenda through mailings, literature drops and use of phone banks to contact voters. All without ever telling you who is backing these efforts or how much they are spending.
Who would treat our electoral process so cavalierly? Who would be so arrogant to believe that they are justified in purchasing electoral success, no matter the damage done to our electoral process, simply because they can?
Let’s start with Open Boulder, which has been the subject of a formal complaint on this issue. Its literature is absolutely state-of-the-art in terms of telling voters how to vote without specifically using the words “vote for.” In their piece titled “14 Candidates…How do I decide?” there are only pictures and bios of the five candidates endorsed by them. No one with a modicum of common sense can read their literature as anything other than a direction to vote for these specific individuals; any other interpretation renders void the meaning of the term “endorsement.” A supine city attorney interpreted this as “issues advocacy” rather than direct support, and rejected the complaint. I would hate to see what constitutes direct advocacy in his eyes.
In the end, this has nothing to do with the candidates supported by groups like Open Boulder or Engage Boulder (the creation of local tech entrepreneur Dan Caruso), or the policies they advocate. Boulder can survive a robust debate on the merits of the issues affecting this community. This has to do with the subversion of our electoral process by those with substantial money and the willingness to spend it. This has to do with potentially bringing the corruption that characterizes our national politics into Boulder, where we have worked hard to institute an electoral regime that limits spending both by individuals and candidates, and requires full disclosure of campaign contributions.
Engage Boulder and Open Boulder should stop hiding behind legalities and disclose who their donors are, how much they have contributed and how much they have spent. They should identify themselves to the people of this city and explain why they believe they are justified in operating in the same manner as the most distasteful national advocacy groups. Stand up and be counted. All of Boulder wants to know who you are, how deep are your pockets, and who is filling them.