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.
“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.
“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.