by Rob Roper
Robert Dempsey, the executive director for the Vermont Democratic Party, is an experienced, professional political operative brought in from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee a little over a year ago. Part of his task was to fix a legal/financial mess, which he did. The other was to help Vermont Democrats win the elusive governorship, which he also did.
Dempsey has an extensive political resume, but he admitted in his opening statement before the Senate Government Operations Committee on Thursday, “I’m a little green” about the process of giving testimony.
By the time Dempsey was finished, the only people looking at all green were the proponents of S.20, the campaign finance reform bill.
In the past, representatives of the Vermont Democratic Party acted as flacks for this “reform” legislation. Dempsey, who was not around for the two veto fights that led to two stinging, one vote Democratic defeats, gave an honest and thorough assessment of S.20, what he thought it would do, and what it would not do.
In summary, Dempsey testified that:
S.20 would not get money out of Vermont politics, and, in fact, would likely increase the amounts spent.
The money spent to influence elections in Vermont would become less transparent under S.20 as donations would shift to third party groups and independent expenditures.
The donation levels in S.20 are “low” when you consider the reality of what it takes to run an effective campaign in Vermont today. [This will cause constitutional problems down the road.]
S.20, will lead to a situation where only self-funding, unregulated “billionaires” have the resources to get their message out.
The provisions in S.20 are a violation of citizens’ free speech rights, particularly the most vulnerable citizens who do not have deep financial resources of their own.
Jeanette White (D-Windham), chair of the committee, and Claire Ayer (D-Addison, who have been pushing this legislation for at least half a decade, looked as if they’d been hit between the eyes with a ball peen hammer.
At one point White asked, “So, does that make what we have in here… um… the party to candidate and the party to party… meaningless?”
Dempsey’s response, “My current donors probably it wouldn’t have a great effect on [because of federal laws governing nationally affiliated parties]. I do appreciate that it would effect other parties that don’t have an affiliation with a national party,” got the attention of former Progressive, Anthony Pollina (D-Washington).
National parties are required by federal law to maintain two committees, one federal and one state. The federal committee is governed by federal law, which allows an individual to donate $10,000 a year. State law can’t interfere with this. Progressives and other Vermont-only parties, however, do not have a national affiliation, and would be entirely subject to state fundraising guidelines.
The upshot of this is that a donor wishing to max out to Republicans or Democrats could give up to $22,000 per cycle. For the Progressives, just $2000. Hardly a level playing field.
Startlingly, White and Ayer, who have both been on the Government Operations Committee and dealing with this campaign finance legislation for at least six years, had absolutely no clue as to how our campaign finance laws actually work, or what the unintended consequences of their “reforms” could possibly be.
All of the Senators’ eyes widened a bit when Dempsey pointed out that S.20, “In fact would effect the legislative caucus’ ability to speak on behalf of the state legislative candidates who, say, weren’t able to raise the amount of money that’s really required now…some of these races can get very expensive. And I want to point back to the role of a political party is to give voice to those who can’t otherwise be competitive.”
Overall, Dempsey gave a bleak picture of what he thought elections would look like in Vermont if S.20 became law:
So, really what I’m afraid of what this will do is it will give rise to billionaire candidates that can self fund (and then they’re not regulated), and then those would really be the only ones with the opportunity to get their message out…. This will force everyone to go out and hire staff (since the party can’t provide a collective structure), everyone to go out and do their own polls…. Everyone will be operating in their own silos and they won’t be able to coordinate and they won’t be able to work together. You’ll have organizations running around with independent expenditures and it will just be… honestly, it will probably just lead to more money in electoral politics because we won’t be able to coordinate our activity…. If we try to tamp down what parties can do, other folks are going to figure out other ways to spend the money, and if it’s not regulated, it’s going to get nasty.
When Erik Mason, Executive Director for the Vermont Republican Party took the stand, he essentially testified, “I agree with everything Robert Dempsey said.” Indeed, it’s what the Vermont Republican Party and the Douglas administration have been saying since 2007.