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Rhode Island’s Top 20 Special Interest Spenders

Monday, August 20, 2012


Unions, law firms, realtors, insurance companies and even the state’s top cable company are among the more than 170 special interest groups that have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into local political campaigns this year, a review of campaign finance reports shows.

Records show the top 20 biggest spending political action committees (PACs) have shelled out $389,389.35 since the beginning of the year, with the overwhelming majority of the funds going directly into the war chests of elected officials, candidates or other PACs.

The spending by the top 20 PACs accounts for nearly half of the $782,126.86 already dished out by PACs across the state since Jan. 1. Of the top 20, 11 of the top spenders are union PACs, including the Rhode Island Laborer’s Political League and the National Education Association of Rhode Island, which top the list.

Unions are the Top Spenders

The majority of the Laborer’s Political League’s spending has gone to the organization’s voluntary fund in Washington D.C., but the PAC has made $1,000 max-out contributions to Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, Senator Frank Ciccone and former Providence Mayor and City Council President John Lombardi, who is now challenging State Rep. Michael Tarro.

The NEA has spent $43,795.83, although that amount includes the approximately $2,700 the union spends on rent and utilities each month. The NEA’s PAC has made $1,000 contributions to Clean Water Action, Ocean State Action, State Rep. Spencer Dickinson, State Rep. candidates Gregg Amore and Mike Morin and State Senate candidates Adam Satchell, Dave Gorman and Lew Pryeor. The influential union has also contributed to each of the 16 lawmakers who voted against the state’s pension reform efforts last year (the 17th lawmakers – Senator John Tassoni is not running for re-election).

Third on the list is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), which has spent $28,419.99 this year. The IBEW pays Providence Central Labor Council president Paul MacDonald approximately $1,666 each month for “consultant and professional services” and has contributed at least $300 to Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena, Senate President Paiva-Weed, House Speaker Gordon Fox, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, House Majority Leader Nick Mattiello, House Finance chairman Helio Melo, Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian and Senate Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte.

Spending Increases in Election Year

But union PACs aren’t the only ones spending significant amounts of cash this year.

The Rhode Island Realtors PAC, always one of the top political spenders in the state, has dropped $26,305.75 this year. The PAC has contributed at least $500 to both House Corporations Committee chairman Brian Patrick Kennedy, the House and Senate leadership PACs, Melo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin and Congressman Jim Langevin.

The Hinckley Allen & Snyder PAC, which makes contributions on behalf of one of the state’s best known law firms, has made max-out $1,000 contributions to Mattiello, Fox, Taveras, Melo, Paiva-Weed, DaPonte, Goodwin, General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Governor Lincoln Chafee. In all, the PAC has spent $15,625.00.

Listed as the 13th biggest spender, the Committee for Fair Broadband Competition, a PAC run by Cox Communications, has spent $12,758.00 for year. The PAC has made $500 (or more) contributions to Fox, Paiva-Weed, Kennedy, Langevin, Kilmartin and both the House and Senate leadership PACs.

The numbers, which are based on figures from June 30, are only expected to increase over the next several months. With dozens of Democratic primary races just over three weeks away and the general election follow in November, PACs are likely going to spend far more than the nearly $1.5 milion they shelled out in 2011.

“On both the federal and state level, we see millions of dollars collected and disbursed to either get around the election finance limitations or, at minimum, the intent of those laws,” Rhode Island College professor Dr. Kay Israel said earlier this year. “Locally, mayors and statehouse leadership raise monies and disburse them to secure their positions in government. At a higher level, governors, Congressmen and Senators spread the wealth around to colleagues and potential supporters. Corporations and labor frequently use their financial muscle to ensure that their desires are being considered (along with their clout).”

PACs Play Too Large a Role

In local races, Rhode Island isn’t expected to experience the wrath of Super PACs, which have the ability to spend endless amounts of money with very little disclosure. But some still stay the local lawmakers rely too much on fundraising in general – particularly during the General Assembly session.

In the past Common Cause, which this year helped get a political campaign disclosure bill passed on Smith Hill, has advocated for banning fundraising during the session. In California, a different effort that focuses specifically on special interests is underway.

In November, Californians will be asked to vote on Proposition 32, a proposal that would restrict political spending through payroll deductions, which is the primary way some unions raise money. But critics of the proposal say that while it cripples union spending, nothing will stop major corporations or wealthy individuals from pouring millions into elections.

While political campaigns in the Ocean State do not cost nearly as much they do in many others states, Israel said the special interests are still too much of a factor.

“So, yes, PACs play too large a role, but the issue often is the cost of running for office at all levels and staying there,” Israel said. “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. It may not be as expensive in Rhode Island, but the situation is the same.”

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan.


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