Expressed concern over money in Vermont politics is highly selective

by Pat Corcker

A recent commentary in the Essex Reporter bemoaned the fact that Paul Dame’s and Carl Houghton’s campaigns for House seats from Essex were supported by a new conservative Super PAC called Vermonters First. This comment was consistent with what has become a popular media theme, namely that Vermonters First represented an attempt to “buy” Vermont’s election. This was described as a corrupting influence on the state’s democratic political tradition. I would argue that it was an attempt to level the playing field, and to give voice to a section of the citizenry who have felt silenced by the lack of balance of reporting in the media. I find this expression of concern over Vermonter’s First to be a case of selective moral indignation as it totally ignores the money that poured into the campaign from the other side.

The latest edition of the Vermonters for Health Care Freedom’s newsletter points out that Vermonters First was actually outspent by the Vermont Democratic Party:

As of October 15, the Vermont Democratic Party expended $934,000, Vermont Senate Democrats PAC $110,000, Vermont House Democrats PAC $157,000, and two independent but sympathetic PACS, ‘Priorities’ and ‘Vermont Leads’ reported $16,000 and $35,000 respectively. Further investigation by Newsletter discovered another PAC, ‘Senate Leadership Committee’, which expended another $31,000. All told, Democratic Party and supportive independent PACs expended over $1.3 million – and that does not include the last 3 weeks of the campaign. And a scan of the contributors indicates that these committees each received between one-quarter and 100% of their contributions from out of state sources.

By comparison, Republican Party Committees and PACs expended about $343,000, not including transfers of funds that did not benefit the state party. If we add Vermonters First’s $814,000, that gives a total of $1.16 million. And despite all the criticism leveled at Vermonters First and their main patron, philanthropist Lenore Broughton of Burlington, Vermonters First was 100% funded by Vermont donors.

In addition to the over all amount, the Democratic Party and its allies on the left can hardly make the claim that their efforts are mostly funded locally. Not only was the Service Employees International Union the sole financial backer behind the creation of Vermont Leads, they were a major contributor to both the Vermont Democratic Party and the Shumlin campaign. They have no presence in Vermont. In fact, of the major backers listed by the National Institute for Money in State Politics, that gave $6,000 or more to the Shumlin Campaign, all of them were from out of state. Shumlin has become a magnet for out of state funding and in his first term as Governor, he already got slightly more that 46% of his campaign contributions from out of state.

All three of the members of our Congressional delegation get more of their campaign contributions from out of state. In particular, Bernie Sanders received 84% of his funding from outside of the state over the course of his career and Leahy has received 87% percent of his funding from outside the state over the course of his career. These “big three” have relatively safe seats and have to spend little on their own reelections. That frees them up to pour their money into the Vermont Democratic Party in an effort to support local candidates. Bernie in particular has ramped up his funding this election cycle to the tune of raising $4 million even though he did not face a very stiff challenge to his U.S. Senate Seat. According to a recent Burlington Free Press article, that recent fundraising drive brought in 91% of its $4 million from out of sate.

In fact, Bernie is making a conscious effort to raise funds from outside Vermont so that he can become a national spokesman for progressive causes. Here is how the Free Press article explains the drive behind the cranking up of his “money machine”:

“He doesn’t need it,” Garrison Nelson, a University of Vermont professor and a longtime observer of Sanders, said of Sanders’ campaign stash. “He has all this money because he’s becoming a national spokesman for what I call the electable left.”

Sanders acknowledged as much in an interview last week, saying he may use the excess money to cultivate a higher national profile for himself and his views.

“I’ve not decided what to do with, uh, the money,” he said. “But one of the areas I am leaning toward is to be speaking with local folks all over this country about the need to grow a strong progressive movement.”

This effort has led him to be spending a lot of his time catering to a national audience:

Toward that end, he made seven trips to New Hampshire in September to espouse his views and stump on behalf of President Barack Obama. He also continues to appear each Friday afternoon on the Thom Hartmann radio show, which is broadcast nationally.

Last year, he was the keynote speaker at the California Democratic Party Convention, drawing chants of “We want Bernie” before he spoke.

A mega-fundraising effort

How Cowan, living in southern Arizona, shifted from being a Sanders fan to being a donor to his campaign is testament to a massive direct-mail fundraising program Sanders has put into motion over the past two years.

Again, some of this money is finding its way into the coffers of the Democratic Party. Say what you will about Vermonters First, but at least we know the money it receives predominantly comes from Vermont.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. As pointed out in a recent True North Reports article, non-profits are fast becoming a vehicle for money to influence the political process without having to report the source of that money:

The influence of non-profits on shaping the political agenda was explored by a Hudson Institute Conference held in 2005 called “When Non-Profits Attack: Nonprofit Organizations as Political Advocates“. The theme of the conference was that the use of non-profit organizations is increasingly advancing political interests. Since then, using non-profits as a funnel for money to advance a political agenda is starting to be more widely seen as a serious problem. According to a September 2010 Wall Street Journal article:

The Senate’s chief tax writer has called for a federal investigation into advocacy groups that have become increasingly popular vehicles for outside donations.

These groups, known as 501(c) 4s after the section of the tax code that defines them, can raise unlimited donations from individuals, corporations and labor unions to spend on political advertisements.

That same TNR article points out that we know from 990 forms obtained over the Internet that VPIRG brings in an average of around $1 million per year between its 501(c)3 branch and its 501(c)4 branch. We also know that the 501(c)3 branch receives a significant amount of its revenue on grants from out of state foundations.

Given all of this, I am having a hard time becoming upset about the impact on Vermont’s politics coming from a single Super PAC that gets just about all of its money from within Vermont. It might be a little easier to take the concern expressed in various media outlets over the influence on Vermont politics that Vermonters First is having, if that concern acknowledged at least some of the money pouring in on the other side. While they are at it, it would be nice if that acknowledgement included some concern over the lack of transparency and the fact that a large part of it comes from out of state. Until that is done, such expressions of concern ring hollow.

Patricia Crocker, Essex, VT

One thought on “Expressed concern over money in Vermont politics is highly selective

  1. Pat, liberals have always had their allies in the media–even here in Vermont. Thanks for helping show the media bias in their election funding coverage.

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