Friday, June 14, 2013

Clean Election Efforts Take Another Hit in North Carolina

Anyone who paid a minimal amount of attention to the world of politics during the 2012 election cycle surely noticed the avalanche of advertisements for the various candidates for offices both locally and nationally.

These ads, which used to come predominantly from the campaigns of those individuals running for office, started coming increasingly from organizations with very innocuous sounding names. These groups are largely run by deep-pocketed individuals with very specific axes to grind, and generally favor conservative candidates.

These groups, like FreedomWorks and countless others, have sprung up largely because of several court decisions that have enabled their growth. The biggest among those was the landmark case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which essentially stated two things: that money is equal to speech, and that corporations, like individuals, have a right to express their freedom of speech.

Ever since, politicians have alternately decried the increased infusion of “dark money” into campaigns, while at the same time benefitting greatly from them. Several states in the country have seen their governments overtaken by candidates whose campaigns were backed by these kinds of groups. Outside money poured into races in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker fended off a recall challenge thanks in large part to donations made by Super-PAC’s funded by the infamous Koch Brothers.

Another state that has seen the impact of money on its government is North Carolina. The state, which voted for President Barack Obama in 2008, has since gone deeply conservative, electing not only to give control of both houses of the legislature to the Republicans in 2010, but also elected a Republican governor, Pat McCrory, in 2012.

Ever since then, the state has been passing a slew of conservative-backed bills, with restrictions on abortion and voting rights among those enacted into law. All of this can’t logically be traced strictly to an increase in the amount of money flowing into campaigns in the state, but the recent Republican resurgence in the state can at least partially be credited to one man: Art Pope.

Pope runs several conservative-leaning PAC’s that actively fund various legislators in North Carolina, and this week, he pulled off his biggest coup yet. Ever since 2003, the state has allowed judicial candidates to opt into a program that gives them access to grant money in exchange for agreeing to limitations on contributions. The program has been a huge success, favored by a vast majority of voters in the state, and even has the bipartisan support of nearly every judge on the bench in North Carolina.

Pope, however, has actively campaigned against the bill for the decade that it has been on the books, and he finally succeeded in getting the Republican-led legislature to defund and kill the bill this week. Even a last second amendment from Republican Representative Jonathan Jordan, which would have taken away the primary method of paying for the program (taxpayer-funds) and retained the $50 fee that lawyers can VOLUNTARILY contribute to the fund, was shelved at the insistence of Pope.

The Institute for Southern Studies has a great article onthe matter, and according to that report, Jordan was likely pressured into dropping his support of the program by Pope. Jordan has received over $100,000 for his campaigns from Pope in the last few election cycles, and the two apparently had a conversation on the Capitol steps in North Carolina during debate over the clean elections program.

It’s hard to draw far-reaching conclusions here, but I feel comfortable in doing so anyway. The basis for this program, which is a belief that the judiciary should not be filled with people whose campaigns are funded by the very folks who will be arguing cases before them, is as sound as can be. There is a reason why huge numbers of North Carolina voters supported the program, and it frankly is an outrage that one man is capable of exerting so much influence over the affairs of the state.

What makes things even worse is that Pope now holds a government position in the state. He is now McCrory’s budget director in his office, and, as Chris Hayes of MSNBC accurately pointed out on his program Friday night, that essentially means that Pope is now a terrifying blend of the Koch Brothers (filthy rich, funds scores of campaigns) and Karl Rove (held a government job and had the ear of the chief executive).

Aside from the wretched state of affairs that allows such a blatant conflict of interest to take place (why should someone have that kind of say over how state funds are allocated when he is personally bankrolling the campaigns of those who are supposed to be overseeing that money?), the fact that public financing has taken this kind of body blow is a sobering thought.

There is something to be said for people who truly believe that money equals speech, but the reality is that elections should not be decided by the candidate who has the most money, and that is increasingly the case in both North Carolina politics, and the country in general.

Stripping laws from the books like this one in the Tar Heel State is further expanding the gap between elected officials and the public they are supposed to be serving. Regular Joes no longer have the ears of those representatives, because the voices of people like Art Pope keep becoming more amplified because of these changes to the law.

While my personal dream of completely publicly financed elections will likely never come to fruition, voters need to realize that having politicians bought and sold in such overt fashion is not a good thing for our democracy as a whole. The more clean elections laws like this one that are struck down, the more we lose our voice, and ultimately, it could be drowned out completely, and then we’ll all be up the creek without a paddle. 

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