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Departure of Common Cause’s Mike Dean a big loss for campaign watchdogs — and public

The group’s executive director spent five years as Minnesota’s lone full-time, independent campaign-finance watchdog.

Mike Dean

Mike Dean

There’s an adage that a reporter is only as good as her sources. This reporter just lost one of her best, one who’s not getting away without a shout-out attached to a pretty serious public-policy observation.

And one that became particularly relevant Wednesday, when a federal appellate court overturned one of the last restrictions on unlimited, unreported spending on political campaigns in Minnesota.

After spending five years as Minnesota’s lone full-time, independent campaign-finance watchdog, Mike Dean has left his post as executive director of Common Cause of Minnesota to take a job as the manager of community engagement for Thrivent Financial for Lutherans.

To be clear, there are other people out there watching political spending — the story that ran in MinnPost Thursday about the appellate court decision quoted two — and a state agency dedicated to regulating it. But until Dean is replaced, Minnesota is without a crucial cog in the campaign finance machinery.

Why the hand-wringing if there are other interested parties?

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The chief problem isn’t unique to Minnesota, or to a particular party. By definition, how well any state polices campaign finance and public disclosure by elected officials is dependent on how eager said public officials are to be policed.

Lawmakers make the laws that are stronger or weaker, and they appropriate the money that staffs — or doesn’t — an agency that is then charged with riding herd on them. In Minnesota, that agency responds to a board whose members are appointed by a governor, who is also subject to its scrutinizing.

Just to give this pushmi-pullyu another direction to head in, courts at both state and federal levels generate a seemingly endless, often contradictory or bafflingly unclear stream of decisions about these laws and their implementation. In turn, officials have an uncanny knack for crafting new loopholes while plugging old ones.

And so in practice, the system — a term used here with some caution — is primed to react to complaints that are brought to it. Dean complained, which isn’t as simple as it might sound. And then he watched the watchdogs to see that his complaints got heard.

In a different era, it would have been a full-time job for several people, some of whom would have worked for news organizations that considered spending time scouring public records and trying to re-create the money trails leading to various legislative and electoral jackpots for big business and special interests.

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He kept abreast of which interest groups and sectors were spending and on what, whether the folks carrying their requests to lawmakers were registered and disclosing their activities and whether our officials and wannabe officials were complying with state campaign finance laws.

In his spare time, he did much of the yeoman labor that the aforementioned downsized reporters used to do and hepped those of us still standing to issues that merited coverage. After he’d used up his spare time, he blogged about it all.

Dean fielded phone calls and pleas for help for stories MinnPost reporters have penned on the lack of disclosure by the campaign in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, over the GOP’s mishandling of financial matters related to the 2010 gubernatorial recount, the Catholic Church’s obligations regarding its political spending and the extensive activities of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

This last outfit kept Dean and his colleagues in Common Cause offices all over the country (and at other Minnesota nonprofits) particularly busy over the last couple of years. Made up of corporations, right-wing think tanks and conservative lawmakers, ALEC was a driving force behind the coordinated, all-out efforts to push tectonic policy shifts through state legislatures throughout the country over the last two years.

Its leaders insist that disclosure laws do not apply to its activities, chief among them the convening of meetings at posh resorts where corporate lobbyists and ideological groups share model bills with state lawmakers, who get scholarships to attend.

ALEC is thought to be responsible for the introduction of 800 bills nationwide, including voter amendment bills, so-called shoot-first measures and right-to-work legislation like that seen in Wisconsin. Dean actually read the model bills uncovered by others and compared them, line by line, to legislation introduced here. He came up with 60 that were identical or strikingly similar enough to call ALEC-related.

And he cheerfully fielded calls about it night and day, resending documentation that hapless reporters already got from him but lost track of. Common Cause’s national office reports that a search for Dean’s replacement has begun. If you know anyone who can slip into some big shoes, send them along.