As the "Occupy" protests spread across the country with the slogan "we are the ninety-nine percent," two reports released this week demonstrate how the top one percent are playing an increasingly outsized role in American elections.
The New Yorker reports on a conservative multimillionaire's successful efforts to buy North Carolina's elections, and a report from campaign finance reform groups describe how an elite group of donors have laundered unlimited contributions to presidential campaigns. Much of this influence was made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and anger over corporate influence in politics is helping fuel the populist uprisings in Manhattan, D.C., and around the country.
Dimestore Donor Dominates North Carolina Elections
James Arthur "Art" Pope, chairman and CEO of the Variety Wholesalers dimestore discount chain, has created a "singular influence machine" in North Carolina, using his family's wealth to influence that state's elections and promote right-wing ideology, according to a report by Jane Mayer in this week's New Yorker magazine.
"The Republican agenda in North Carolina is really Art Pope's agenda. He sets it, he funds it, and he directs the efforts to achieve it. The candidates are just fronting for him. There are so many people in North Carolina beholden to Art Pope—it undermines the democratic process," says Marc Farinella, a Democratic political consultant.
Like the Koch brothers (whom Meyer profiled in the New Yorker last year), Pope grew up wealthy, inherited his family dimestore business, and has spent massive amounts of money funding organizations and candidates opposing environmental regulations, taxes, minimum wage laws, unions, and campaign-spending limits. In addition to their sizable personal fortunes, the Kochs and Pope can spend millions in corporate funds because their companies are privately held. Pope regards Charles and David Koch as friends, and is one of the four directors of the Koch-funded-and-founded Americans for Prosperity, to which he has donated over $2 million.
John Snow, a centrist Democrat who was defeated by Art Pope-funded attacks after three terms in state Senate, told the New Yorker, "[i]t's getting to the point where, in politics, money is the most important thing." Snow was expected to easily win reelection, but his Tea Party-affiliated candidate with no experience had a seemingly endless flow of money. "A lot of it was from corporations and outside groups related to Art Pope. He was their sugar daddy."
Chris Heagerty was another Democratic candidate defeated by a flood of Pope-connected money. One ad depicted Heagerty, who is caucasian but has dark hair and complexion, as Hispanic. "They slapped a sombrero on a photo of me, and wrote, 'Mucho Taxo! Adios, Señor!'" Heagerty told the magazine. "If you put all of the Pope groups together, they and the North Carolina G.O.P. spent more to defeat me than the guy who actually won." According to the article, he fell silent, then added, "For an individual to have so much power is frightening. The government of North Carolina is for sale."
"We didn't have that before 2010," said Bob Phillips, head of Common Cause North Carolina. "Citizens United opened up the door. Now a candidate can literally be outspent by independent groups. We saw it in North Carolina, and a lot of the money was traced back to Art Pope."
According to an analysis by the Institute for Southern Studies, Pope, his family, and their organizations targeted twenty-two legislative races and won eighteen. The wins placed both chambers of North Carolina's General Assembly under Republican majorities for the first time since 1870. Three-quarters of "independent expenditures" in North Carolina's 2010 state races -- spending made independently of a candidate or their committee -- came from accounts linked to Pope.
Wealthy Elites' Influence on Elections Grows, Post Citizens United
In the post Citizens United era, the outsize influence of a small group of wealthy donors making "independent" expenditures is not limited to North Carolina, according to a report released this week by Democracy 21, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Center for Responsive Politics. A handful of elite donors are capitalizing on the lawless campaign finance environment to exceed federal candidate contribution limits. Individuals have spent as much as a million dollars supporting Mitt Romney's bid for president, and two million to support President Obama's reelection.
"Super PACs" emerged in the wake of the Citizens United decision, which struck down limits on corporate independent expenditures. Super PACs can now raise unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, and unions, and use it on political ads for or against federal candidates. They are not allowed to donate directly to candidates or coordinate with their campaigns.
In striking down corporate independent expenditure limits, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld limits on individual contributions to candidates reasoning that "the potential for quid pro quo corruption distinguished direct contributions to candidates from independent expenditures." The majority opinion stated "[t]he absence of prearrangement and coordination of an expenditure with the candidate or his agent not only undermines the value of the expenditure to the candidate, but also alleviates the danger that expenditures will be given as a quid pro quo for improper commitments."
The first presidential race after Citizens United, though, reveals that the distinction between direct campaign contributions and "independent" expenditures has been eliminated -- and with it, the idea that corruption follows one but not the other.
In the second quarter of 2011, over 50 individuals donated the legal maximum to Romney's campaign ($2,500), then made around $6.4 million in additional contributions to Romney's "Restore Our Future" Super PAC. Almost half of these individuals gave between $100,000 and $500,000 to the Super PAC, and one person donated $1 million. These donations made up half of the "Restore Our Future" funds.
Nine individuals donated to both President Obama's reelection campaign and his "Priorities USA Action" Super PAC. The nine donors collectively gave $2.6 million to Obama's Super PAC, primarily from Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who donated $2 million, and Chicago media mogul Fred Eychaner, who gave $500,000.
"This analysis offers yet more proof that these candidate-specific Super PACs are nothing more than an end-run around existing contribution limits," said Paul S. Ryan, FEC Program Director at the Campaign Legal Center. "The Super PACs are simply shadow candidate committees. Million-dollar contributions to the Super PACs pose just as big a threat of corruption as would million-dollar contributions directly to candidates."
In addition to Super PAC spending, corporations and corporate executives can also launder campaign spending through non-profit "social welfare" groups organized under section 501(c) of the tax code. Non-profits are not required to disclose their donors, preventing the public from knowing the source of a particular message. Last week, certain business leaders denounced this secret spending, and Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate this alleged abuse of the tax code.
Ninety-Nine Percent: Money Out of Politics
The Citizens United decision affirmed that "money is speech," and declared that spending limits violate the 1st Amendment rights of corporations and the uber-wealthy. As the 2012 presidential election heats up and election spending ramps up, corporations and the top 1% will speak louder than everyone else. The money that flows into the 2012 elections will come overwhelmingly from the top one percent -- only a tiny sliver of Americans donate to political campaigns, and the bottom ninety-nine percent who can afford to contribute will have their dollars drowned out by the million-dollar contributions made possible by Citizens United.
And money matters. In modern elections, 9 out of 10 races are decided by who raises more campaign cash. Given this reality, it stretches the imagination to believe elected officials won't be indebted to those deep-pocketed donors who help them get the edge over their opponent.
With average Americans -- the ninety nine percent -- sidelined by a political process and an economy that increasingly benefits only those at the top, they have taken to the streets. It is little wonder, then, that as the nascent Occupy protests grow and gain shape, at least one message is becoming clear: get corporate money out of politics.