Rhode Island Special Interests Dropped More than $1.7 Million on 2012 Elections
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Nearly two dozen political action committees (PACs) formed by labor unions, House and Senate Leadership and private sector groups reported spending at least $20,000 during the 2012 calendar year, a review a campaign finance reports shows.
Added together, 202 of the state’s registered PACs reported spending $1,713,980.02 during the election cycle, with a significant chunk of those funds going directly into the campaign accounts of elected officials.
GoLocalProv has closely monitored PAC spending all year and for the top spending groups, the investments often paid off. Records show the top ten spending PACs include five unions, three PACs formed by Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed and House Speaker Gordon Fox and two groups from the private sector.
The biggest spender was the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEA-RI), which reported spending $113,195.50 as of last week. Those funds include the money the organization spent on rent on utilities, but the largest two expenses were for nearly $36,000 in political consulting from Checkmate Consulting, an agency owned by Brad DuFault. The NEA also made $1,000 max-out campaign contributions to at least seven candidates or elected offices, including State Rep. Spencer Dickinson, Senator-elect Adam Satchell and Representatives-elect Stephen Casey and Gregg Amore.
And while strong efforts were made to oust the few lawmakers who voted against the state’s pension reform overhaul last year, the majority of the 17 nay votes (13 in total) will be returning to Smith Hill for the 2013 General Assembly session. Last month, NEA government relations director Patrick Crowley suggested public employees and progressive groups sent a clear message to the entire state in November.
“EngageRI, RI-CAN, and other anti-pension players proved to be non entries in the election,” Crowley said. “The real players were teachers, public employees, women's organizations, Marriage Equality Rhode Island, Ocean State Action and other progressive groups. Democrats should look to partner with these groups if they want the corner office in 2014 - even if it means re-thinking their current strategy on the pension lawsuit."
The teachers unions weren’t the only unions who spent thousands of dollars in 2012. The second-largest spender, the Rhode Island Laborer’s Political League, dropped $79,194.84 between January and last week, including a $5,000 contribution to the state Democratic party and $1,000 contributions to Congressman James Langevin, Paiva Weed, Senate Majority Leader Dominic Ruggerio, Senator Frank Ciccone and Representative-elect John Lombardi.
Another union, the AFL-CIO, spent nearly $49,000 on a range of consultants, mailers, and campaign contributions. The PAC reported making at least $500 in campaign contributions to Congressman David Cicilline, Langevin, Senator Paul Fogarty, Representatives Deb Fellela and Scott Guthrie and Senators-elect Gayle Goldin and Ryan Pearson.
“They’ll Spend What they Need to Spend”
For some, the union influence has become too overwhelming.
“As long as the public sector unions are allowed to continue running a mandatory worker dues system, they will maintain a huge cash advantage for their PAC activity for elections and so it’s little surprise that their PACS are disproportionately larger than most other independent efforts,” said Donna Perry, executive director of the Rhode Island Statewide Coalition (RISC).
Perry argued that when special interests are spending nearly $2 million “playing to their base and informing their worker members on who to vote for, and who to vote against,” It can be very difficult for other candidate to mount successful campaigns.
“This year demonstrated very vividly that the unions will spend what they need to spend to either install people—or try to remove people—from the legislature, seat by seat, in their quest to defend their current levels of compensation, benefits, and especially pensions,” Perry said. “Most of their campaign efforts and targets this year all seemed closely aligned with the pension vote and the wider issue.”
Engage RI Mystery Donor Revealed
But those on the union side argue that they’re simply fighting fire with fire. While the pension reform-focused EngageRI PAC reported spending just under $14,000, the organization as a whole has spent nearly $740,000 in lobbying, polling and advertising since last year, according to Wall Street Journal article published online Tuesday.
The Wall Street Journal also reported that billionaire John Arnold made a six-figure contribution to the group.
In some ways, the revelation that an outside funder would make $100,000-plus contribution to a Rhode Island group changes the narrative in a state that, with the exception of the 1st Congressional District race, saw very little outside spending.
Still, Rhode Island College professor told GoLocalProv earlier this year that local organizations still have plenty of influence when it comes to the elections. He agreed that PACs probably have too much influence.
“For many officeholders, government has become an occupation and not a service with the price of admission reduced to seeking and listening to those who can most easily afford to be heard,” Israel said. “It may not be as expensive in Rhode Island, but the situation is the same.”