Sunday, June 22, 2014

San Francisco gets to watch big money play in elections

Laurence Lessig has started a PAC (Political Action Committee) -- #MayDay -- aiming to get the influence of big funders out of our politics and win our democracy back from the plutocrats. Huh? He figures it will take money to win a Congress that will do the job and we can crowd fund the project.
For 2014, our goal is $12 million. With that money, we will make fundamental reform the key issue in five congressional races. And win.

Then we’ll apply what we learn to 2016 — when we’ll run a much much bigger campaign in many more districts for this one purpose: to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform.
I'm more than a little skeptical. After all I have worked in politics for a couple of decades. But I do know that he understands how the current crop of billionaire political dabblers are getting their way with most politicians. Here's his vivid description of how this works:
The single greatest fear of any incumbent is that thirty days before an election, some anonymously funded SuperPAC will drop $1 million against him.

When that happens, there’s little the incumbent can do. He can’t then turn to his largest contributors — by definition, they have all maxed out and can’t, under the law, give any more. So in anticipation, the incumbent must line up support — or let’s call it protection. In light of the risk that the incumbent will be targeted, the incumbent needs a kind of assurance: If she needs a defense, there will be the resources to defend her.

... It’s not technically “insurance”; it’s not issued by an insurance company, and there’s no cash premium collected in advance. But it functions like insurance, and indeed, like any insurance, there is a premium of some sort that is collected in advance. Because if you’re going to convince a SuperPAC to be there when you need them, you need to signal that you’re the kind of incumbent they want to protect. “They’d love to support you, Senator, but they have a rule that they can’t support anyone who doesn’t get a 95 percent on their score card.” So the rational representative has a clear goal to work towards — 95 percent or better — long before he actually needs anyone’s money. Thus, without a single dollar changing hands, the SuperPAC achieves its objective: bending Congressmen to its program, through the expectation of a defense if a defense is necessary.
Supervisor David Campos
San Franciscans in the 17th Assembly District have just seen this process at work, with appropriate local variations. Two incumbent city supervisors, David Campos and David Chiu, are running to succeed our termed-out warrior, Tom Ammiano. Campos is a Guatemalan immigrant, gay, and decidedly the candidate of progressive community organizations and progressive labor. Chiu is Chinese-American, generally the candidate of real estate, business, and finance interests in the city; he will have a large money advantage. The district could elect either of them. The probable winner is not easy to call.

On the eve of the June 3 primary (which served as a warm up between these two men for the general election, thanks to California's imbecilic Top Two Primary), venture capitalist Ron Conway who likes to throw his big bucks around in city politics, dumped bundles of cash on perfectly legal hit pieces against Campos. The stuff was vicious, equating a past procedural vote with Campos having endorsed domestic violence. Hits like this assume that most voters have little information. They sometimes work.

Campos didn't have insurance of the financial kind that Lessig talks up -- unless you can call San Francisco's sizable organized contingent of progressive community and labor election activists a form of people's insurance. Phone calls and shoe leather kept Campos close enough in the primary so he retains a good chance of winning among the much larger electorate that will turn out in November. But he'll probably face big tech money playing dirty again.
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Lessig (he's a Harvard Law prof) is definitely on to the mechanics of how money is distorting our elections. Will his crowd-funded Super PAC make inroads on a corrupt system? I don't know. I have usually felt that agitation for "campaign finance reform" amounted to squeamish moralizing and demonstrated too little awareness that struggles over power are life and death matters, even in a democracy. Maybe the corruption has become so obvious that we're ready to get smarter and tougher. Maybe Lessig can show some of the way. You can sign up to follow his weekly Politics$Picks newsletter. I did.

1 comment:

Rain Trueax said...

Right or wrong, I support no PACs nor do I give to the party. I understand why there might be benefits to such but I don't trust any that much with how they'd use it. So all that I donate goes directly to the candidates where I have seen them do a good job or their platform is one I support. I realize they might not be wise with that money but if they aren't, then maybe I am just as glad they lose as they wouldn't be with taxpayer's money either. And now that means those I think are good leaders in other states besides Oregon.

I wish we had no special interest groups but we won't see the end of them as it's too deeply entrenched. But I sure don't have to give dollars to keep them going-- no matter how worthy they make themselves sound.

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