by Rob Roper
Last week we reported the surprising testimony of Robert Dempsey, executive director for the Vermont Democratic Party, undercutting a campaign finance “reform” bill that Vermont Democrats have been trying to pass since 2007, and that the new governor fully supports. Two points Dempsey raised about S.20 are worth examining in the context of our local politics.
The first is his belief (shared by his counterpart in the Vermont Republican Party) that if this bill passes, “[W]hat 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.”
Peter Shumlin, while not a billionaire, is a candidate wealthy enough spend $150,000 of his own money on television ads – a sizeable buy in the Vermont media market. Indeed, it is not a far fetched conclusion that Shumlin’s three week, self-financed television campaign, which his less wealthy opponents could not match, bought him his slim, 200 vote margin victory over Doug Racine.
So, it’s no wonder Shumlin would be an enthusiastic supporter of this “reform,” which would hamstring even further any future opponents, leaving himself as one of the “only ones with the opportunity to get their message out.”
The second point Dempsey raised that is worth examining is that S.20 won’t keep big money out of Vermont elections, it will just drive it to other less transparent places. In Depsey’s words, “Ultimately I think it will hog tie the political process and those that want to get involved who don’t have those types of [personal financial] means [will have a hard time] expressing themselves.” In addition, “If we try to tamp down what parties can do, other folks are going to figure out other ways to spend it, and if it’s not regulated, it’s going to get nasty.”
What other “folks” would stand to benefit from such a dynamic? Weakened political parties and a bunch of big money donors suddenly looking around for a new place to park their cash and influence elections? VPIRG perhaps? And, not surprisingly, VPIRG is not just a major supporter of this bill, they have actually written most of it behind closed doors.
VPIRG and Peter Shumlin, the two entities that have the most advantage to gain from S.20, have a special relationship. In the last election Shumlin committed a “significant breach of protocol” by jumping on to the back of a VPRIG float during the Burlington Mardi Gras parade. (Favoritism isn’t supposed to be aired in public. The non-partisan illusion must be maintained.) During the five way Democratic primary, VPIRG conducted a poll on Vermont Yankee messaging, referring to and benefitting just one candidate by name: Peter Shumlin.
Now Shumlin and VPIRG are teamed up to pass a campaign finance reform bill that will benefit themselves at the expense of the people of Vermont. Let’s hope Robert Dempsey’s refreshing commission of candor sheds enough light on this scheme to put an end to it.