Campaign-spending ruling could play out in state, local races

The Supreme Court’s decision Thursday that ends restraints on corporate spending in elections could reach into places such as the Minnesota Legislature, even city council and judicial chambers.

“The only thing that a corporation can’t do,” said David Schultz, Hamline University ethics professor and a longtime advocate of tightening campaign finance laws, “is give a wad of cash directly to a candidate. Outside of that, there are no limits.”

What does that mean?

“Think of 3M right now and the groundwater pollution issues it faces,” said Schultz. “If it’s not happy with current laws, it could say, ‘We’re going to empty our treasury and run a slate of our own candidates.”’

The most insidious impact, Schultz fears, could come in judicial races.

David Schultz
Courtesy of Hamline University
David Schultz

“The impact on judicial races could be huge,” he said. “Massive amounts of money could be spent on state Supreme Court races.”

But wouldn’t voters know if it’s a corporation such as Wal-Mart or 3M supporting a candidate? Wouldn’t that be a warning sign to beware?

“Sophisticated voters might know,” said Schultz, but he added that corporations, or unions, could cover their tracks by funding political action committees which directly support candidates.

“All of a sudden you could have some group calling itself ‘Citizens for a Cleaner Tomorrow’ supporting a candidate,” said Schultz. “Most voters would have no idea what that group might really represent.”

‘First Amendment pre-empts’
For the moment, of course, there are state laws still in place that keep limitations in place.

But those laws suddenly are mere “technicalities” in Schultz’s view. When they are challenged, state courts will have no choice but to overturn them.

“The First Amendment pre-empts everything else,” said Schultz.

Even more foreboding, in Schultz’s eyes, are cases in the judicial system saying that laws forcing disclosure of where money is coming from are an infringement of free-speech rights. In his support of the majority opinion Thursday, Schultz said, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that disclosure laws have “a chilling” affect on free speech.

But even with disclosure still required, Schultz said, the impact of the court’s ruling is profound at all levels of government.

The ruling, he said, will give even more power to lobbyists.

“It’s a tremendous new tool for lobbyists,” said Schultz. “Now they can go to a legislator and say, ‘If you don’t do what we want, we’ll spend as much as we need to knock you out.”’

No one, of course, can know the full impact of the court’s ruling, yet.

Minneapolis City Council member Elizabeth Glidden, for example, thinks the ability of a candidate to form a grass roots organization still will remain the most crucial element of local politics.

Elizabeth Glidden
Elizabeth Glidden

“But it does take money to organize,” said Glidden, “and it’s hard to raise money.”

Currently, Minneapolis candidates run under strict campaign limits. In an election year, a candidate for City Council can accept only $300 per individual contributor and is not allowed to accept any money from a business.

It is possible, then, a corporation or union could spend unlimited amounts supporting an opposing candidate. Again, that money can’t be given directly to a candidate, but it can be spent in support of a specific candidate’s bid for office.

Corporations and city council races
Why would a corporation care about a city council race?

Think zoning laws that might restrict heights of buildings in certain neighborhoods. Think of battles over where freeway ramps should be located. Think of smoking bans.

Money can create “an ability to get very well done, sophisticated messages” into local races, said Glidden.

The rules have suddenly changed. It won’t take long for big players to learn how to play a new game.

Mary Wilson, president of the National League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization, shares the concern that the impact of the ruling will ripple through the political and judicial systems at all levels across the country.

Like Schultz, she fears the big loser could be the courts.

“There’s been too much big money in judicial races already,” said Wilson from her home in New Mexico. “We’ve already begun to see the negative impact of that. Big money impacts how the public views the independence of the courts.”

And like Schultz and Glidden, Wilson says that the decision will reach into the smallest offices in government.

“Big money is relative,” she said. “Big money might mean $5 million in one race, but it may mean only $20,000 in another race. This diminishes [and] makes it harder than ever for the individual to be heard. . .This decision undermines what we [the League] have been trying to do for 30 years.”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 01/22/2010 - 02:04 pm.

    Your use of “smoking bans” as an example where this ruling could change the playing field is a good one, Doug. In fact, it has happened here before.

    In Minnespolis, a pro-smoking group that called itself the “Minneapolis Hospitality Association” was being funded by Big Tobacco, a fact they did not disclose when they went before the City Council and Hennepin County Commissioners.

    Thankfully, it didn’t work. But Hennepin County did vote to weaken its ordinance, the only government entity to do so in Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Rod Loper on 01/22/2010 - 02:50 pm.

    Corporations are really special persons according to the Roberts court. If they
    murder someone, do conservatives clamor that they
    get the death penalty? Just asking.

  3. Submitted by John Heintz on 01/22/2010 - 05:23 pm.

    The legal fiction of the corporation as a person persists. Perhaps those desiring to avail themselves of the freedom of speech that actual individual humans enjoy should be taxed under individual income tax laws and rates. Then perhaps shareholders would get interested and agitate to control it.

  4. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 01/22/2010 - 06:56 pm.

    I’m not sure that this new Supreme Court ruling matters. After seeing the wads of cash Klobuchar and Franken both want to hand to the big insurance and drug corporations, via the Senate’s version of the health care ripoff bill, who believes the politicians have not already been bought?

    Consider the evidence. Where’s the real reform in the Senate bill that about 70% of citizens want? We want affordable and quality care for all of our citizens, but Klobuchar and Franken help hand us a bill that will merely enrich the already rich. As to the claim that the bill will extend coverage to 35 million, it is important to note that the Senate bill includes a “bronze” plan that, no doubt, will be used to shove the poor into inferior health care after draining them of every spare penny. The poor tend to be women and children, and this Senate bill is no blessing. Think of America’s tomorrow as a Dickensonian society in which the poor women and children work and toil and live mean and meager lives.

    Alas, the Supreme Court ruling does not matter. Amy sold her soul to the devil long ago and Franken seems to be 98% of the way there.

    It is interesting that now that Klobuchar and Franken are in trouble with the voters, they are using the Bush playbook and talking on and on about terrorism. The terrorism get-of-jail-free card did not work for Bush and it won’t save Klobuchar and Franken either. Also, Klobuchar’s sudden interest in another Chinese consumer safety problem is more of the same. She’s just trying to change the subject on an issue, cadmium in jewelry, that she would have addressed long ago. Consumer groups have complained about these problems with Chinese produced products for years. Hello, Amy!!!!

    Naw, the Supreme Court ruling does not matter although the Democrats are raising a big fuss about it as they try to divert attention from the the sale of their own souls.

  5. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 01/22/2010 - 08:23 pm.

    I believe most of what we rightly call bad government has an obvious source. It stems from our willingness to allow a small number of people with a large amount of money to speak so loudly that politicians literally cannot afford to listen to the rest of us.

    So I am naturally appalled at the Supreme Court ruling. Contrary to the opinion of the High Court’s plutocratic majority, money is not speech, but it is a form of power that can amplify the voices of a few at the expense of the majority. Metaphorically speaking, money is a megaphone. If we could not set reasonable decibel limits on the use of megaphones, we should soon find it impossible to think, let alone make our voices heard. Failing to place limits on the funding of speech, or on the ownership of media, has the same effect.

    In the short term, at least, we need to get creative about alternatives. Hopefully, public campaign funding is still possible. And despite Justice Thomas’s defense of purely anonymous political campaign financing (a recipe straight out of the mafia cookbook), he does not speak for a judicial majority (yet). We can still demand full disclosure of the names of all contributors to political campaigns.

    And here’s how I’d do it. I would require every advertisement, political or otherwise, to display an advisory, like the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes, that indicates clearly the number of real people who actually endorse the ad. The advertisers would have to provide lists of signatures to back up their endorsement claims, and would have to make these lists available to the public for as long as their ad continued to run.

    This reform, which I believe the recent Supreme Court decision by no means precludes, would empower the viewers of every paid ad (political or otherwise) to distinguish grassroots from astroturf at a glance. They would gain a much needed citizenship tool.

  6. Submitted by McKey on 01/23/2010 - 08:20 am.

    isn’t the real issue the fact that we have an anointed group of people with unlimited power and no way of holding them accountable for their actions?

  7. Submitted by Dick Novack on 01/23/2010 - 09:32 am.

    Big money already runs in state and local elections – entirely within the laws before this supreme court decision.

    1. Laws on political committees/groups apply to two or more. An individual can spend, distribute, and do what s/he wants to influence a race and in most cases keep it unattributed. If even a large group/organization of people have “members” fund individual expenditures (say produced by the same ad groups) on a candidate or issue of their belief, it is currently perfectly legal. (“Hey Jim do you want to send some flyers to precinct 12? Mike’s doing precincts 8 and 9.”)

    2. Unions, and companies to a lesser extent, mobilize enormous numbers of people to distribute door to door while the opposing candidate/issue spends enormous amounts on postage or delivery. Or man phone banks. Think that doesn’t make a difference?

    3. Lastly PACs can and do spend enormous amounts. Outside money, much that is not declared, already influences local and state elections in areas when the influencers do not live. Example: Edina’s district 41a had numerous outside organizations/PACs/”persons of belief” on all three sides trying to swing the Erhardt/Downey/Staunton election making it my belief (because it is not all declarable or candidate money) the most expensive state legislative race in Minnesota history. One in which the winner won by barely getting the larger 1/3 of the vote. One analyst said it might have totaled $50+ per vote. So much for majority rule or representing local constituients.

    The money is already there. The only difference now is that a company or union can simply write a direct check.

  8. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/23/2010 - 12:41 pm.

    Liked the article. Could probably even be expanded upon. Using money to knock somone out if they don’t do what they want sounds a lot more unjust than buying access.

  9. Submitted by Bill Coleman on 01/24/2010 - 04:39 pm.

    It is interesting that not long ago, the conservatives were incensed about possible foreign influence on elections.

    Are corporations citizens of any country? We know that they have interests? Do they have any allegiance?

  10. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 01/25/2010 - 04:39 pm.

    We’ll see which wins out, Newton’s 1st Law or his 3rd.

    For those interested in “equal and opposite reaction” instead of the law of inertia, you might find these sites interesting:

    The Free Speech for People


    We’ve always heard that “money talks” and that “everything is for sale”.

    The question now becomes whether we as a society believe those concepts are bad or so good that they deserve the protection of the United States Constitution.

    To say that the problem already existed does not justify making the problem worse. Instead, it should be a recognition that at long last the problem should addressed.

  11. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/26/2010 - 11:28 am.

    The Congrress could:

    (1) Require that all TV/radio networks provide an equal amound of free time for every candidate and every debate.

    (2) Tell the two major parties that debates will continue to be controlled by network announcer/moderators with agendae if they don’t return to debates moderated by the League of Women Voters.

    (3) Enact legislation making all federal-level elections publicly funded (to be duplicated by states at their level).

    (4) Pass all 5 (now 6 but I’m not sure what #6 is) bills developed by Alan Grayson (D-FL —

    The Business Should Mind Its Own Business Act (HR 4431)

    The Public Company Responsibility Act (HR 4435)

    The End Political Kickbacks Act (HR 4434)

    The Corporate Propaganda Sunshine Act (HR 4432)

    The Ending Corporation Collusion Act (HR 4433)

    See his website ( and click on grayson-save-our-democracy.shtml for further info.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/26/2010 - 04:24 pm.

    Addendum to #11:

    Alan Grayson’s 6th “Save Our Democracy” bill is the End the Hijacking of Shareholder Funds Act (HR 4487), which “requires the approval of a majority of a public company’s shareholders for any expenditure by that company to influence public opinion on matters not related to the company’s products or services.”

    Instead of just bemoaning the current situation, Grayson applied an amazing ability to analyze a bad decision by the Supreme Court and to determine legislative measures to counter it step by step. Grayson for Prez!

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