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John Perilli: Keeping Outside Money Out of 2014 Election

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

 

People's Pledges are a good way to combat outside money in politics, but they must be enforced seriously by voters, believes John Perilli.

No one expected this year's race for Governor to be cheap.

This past Friday, when the five candidates for Rhode Island's highest office revealed their most recent fundraising hauls, the numbers were mind-numbing. All three Democrats are already holding onto at least seven figures' worth of campaign cash, and both Republicans are not far off that mark. Treasurer Gina Raimondo leads the way with a stunning $2.5 million, or about $2.50 per constituent. That's a fundraising ratio on par with a Presidential election. Democratic newcomer Clay Pell just lent his campaign $1 million of his own money.

But in my mind, the most important number revealed last Friday was this total: $100,000.

That is how much money one couple––former Enron trader John Arnold and his wife Laura––gave to an independent political advocacy group formed to support Treasurer Raimondo. This group, called American LeadHERship, is not bound by the normal rules of campaign finance. There are strict limits on direct campaign donations in Rhode Island of $1000 per donor, per candidate, per year. But American LeadHERship is a so-called "Super PAC," and can raise and spend whatever it wants as long as it does not directly coordinate with a campaign.

One wealthy power couple, having as much of an impact by themselves as a hundred or more ordinary donors––what is at all democratic about that?

These outside spending groups, a thorny mess of PACs and their more sinister cousins the Super PACs, pose a serious problem for our elections. Most of the money raised by the candidates for Governor comes from individual voters, from Rhode Island and elsewhere, but outside groups represent organized interests. They do not necessarily reflect the voting public as a whole. Some of these groups can give directly to candidates, and others cannot. Combined, though, they can influence elections far beyond what any one voter could do alone in the polling booth.

However, some candidates are pushing back. They are rejecting PAC dollars and telling Super PACs that their independent help is unwelcome. The aspiring Governors of Rhode Island might be able to come together and reject outside spending, through an agreement known as the "People's Pledge."

Keeping the People's Bargain

A "People's Pledge," simply put, is when opposing candidates come together to agree that they will not accept certain forms of outside spending in their election. The idea gained popularity in 2012 after Sen. Elizabeth Warren and then Sen. Scott Brown agreed to one in their marquee U.S. Senate battle in Massachusetts. It quickly caught on as a relatively simple, voluntary way to keep outside spending out of elections, as well as to make a statement about the lack of serious campaign finance reform in the U.S.

While the two Republican candidates for Governor of Rhode Island, Mayor Allan Fung and Ken Block, have appeared cool to the idea, the three Democrats look as though they might make a deal. Mayor Angel Taveras and Treasurer Raimondo have both called for a strong Pledge, and Clay Pell has declared independently that he will not to take PAC money. If Pell were to hop aboard and agree to a Pledge, then we may well have a Democratic primary with no outside spending. And in what is already a multimillion-dollar race, that's quite a stride in the right direction.

But the specter of American LeadHERship PAC still looms. What if Treasurer Raimondo decides that she's better off without a Pledge, and that she could get away with tacitly allowing the group to step in on her side? Or what if Taveras or Pell make a similar decision?

The Pledge's Pitfalls

Remember: nothing is legally binding the candidates to stick with the Pledge. One of the main strengths of the People's Pledge––the fact that it is a voluntary compact––is also one of it's greatest weaknesses. And all it takes is one defection for the whole deal to go sour.

It might not have been too hard for Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown to sit down and hash out a deal. After all, it was just the two of them. But our Democratic primary for Governor features three competitors, which turns the bargaining process into a vicious triangle. Each candidate must negotiate with two others, all the while calculating: Will this help me, or will this hurt me?

The larger a race is, the harder negotiating a Pledge becomes.

There are examples of races with more than two candidates negotiating a Pledge, but they are overshadowed by some ghastly counterexamples. In last year's mayoral primary election in Boston, a wide-open brawl with a dozen candidates, negotiations for a People's Pledge completely collapsed, and the race devolved into a shouting match full of cheap grandstanding and finger-pointing.

So what can be done to make these Pledges work, even in tough circumstances? How can we make sure candidates honor their words, not just in the early months of a campaign but right up until the election?

Raising the Stakes

We simply have to increase the penalties of defecting from the deal. And since People's Pledges are voluntary, we, the voting public, must do the enforcement ourselves.

I'm not talking about "the people" in abstraction. I mean we, the voters, the donors, the journalists, the bloggers, the readers––in fact, anyone who is concerned enough with outside spending to make it an issue they would vote on.

We must make it clear to candidates that if they defect from their promises, they will be punished on election day. This would be especially effective in primaries, where small differences between the candidates could have huge impacts among a compact, ideological voting bloc. If candidates fear the consequences of taking outside money, they will not only be more likely to enter a Pledge, but also more likely to uphold it.

Until substantive campaign finance reform is passed in the United States, we must take what measures we can to curb the menace of dark money and independent spending. The People's Pledge is by no means a perfect solution, but has achieved some notable successes. And if we as observers and voters can make it clear that we are serious about enforcing these Pledges, we might just send a great disease of our democracy into remission.

John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member.  

 

Related Slideshow: 10 Questions Pell Has to Answer When Running for Gov of RI

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10. Pell's Base?

Where is Pell’s voter base going to come from?

It is difficult to identify Clay Pell’s base beyond a few prep school chums (in California) and the lovely people who live on Bellevue Avenue in Newport.  
 
Every winning candidate needs a core base to leverage to win.
 
Taveras is counting, in part, on the Hispanic community as his base.
 
Raimondo is working to solidify two core groups – women and fiscal conservative Democrats.
 
Pell, who is both wooing and being wooed by progressives and public sector unions (see #6), must grow beyond the group the summers in Newport.
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9. Seriously

Seriously – Another No Private Sector Experience Governor?

Voters should understand that two sources of revenue have funded Clay Pell’s adult life – the federal government and trust funds.  His public service in the Coast Guard is admirable, but Clay Pell has never had to worry about: 
 
Mortgage, rent, car, health insurance, groceries, credit card, electric, oil/gas, telephone, cable, cellphone, college loans, tuition, or even yacht payments.  
 
They were all taken care of before his own birth.
 
He has to convince voters that he is credible.
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8. Decision making

Has he ever had to make an executive decision?

There is no indication that Clay Pell has ever had to make a significant management decision in his life. We all saw how David Cicilline struggled with managing Providence’s budget – Mayor’s offices and Governor’s offices are tough places for on-the-job learning.
 
Like their decision making or not, both Taveras and Raimondo have had to make executive decisions – Pell is going to need to assure voter he can make management decisions (See tough decisions below).
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7. Ordinary RIers

Can Pell connect to Rhode Islanders?

Most of the places Clay Pell spent his formative years, Rhode Islanders have not experienced.  The reason why – they are private clubs, top-flight private schools and colleges. The Thacher School to Harvard to Georgetown Law School.  Each of these premier schools has an annual tuition of more than $50,000 a year.
 
While Pell may claim to be committed to “ordinary” people (as he said in a WJAR interview), he needs to demonstrate that he is can understand the plight of unemployed and underemployed Rhode Islanders.
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6. Progressives

Progressives and Unions are in Love with Pell, is that good for RI?

Two powerful and influential groups in the Democratic primary are progressives and public service unions. With Rhode Island’s unemployment the worst in the United States and the economy, de facto, still in the recession, the next Governor will have many difficult decisions. 
 
The decisions will include difficult budget choices – not likely to be popular with public sector unions and progressives.
 
As the Wall Street Journal wrote this week, "...makes him attractive to public unions who are likely to spend heavily in the primary. Robert Walsh, the executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, has already welcomed Mr. Pell's entry into the race. "Suddenly, an opportunity appears."
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5. Kwan Factor

Is he more than Michelle Kwan’s husband?

Rhode Islanders love a good celebrity and Clay Pell’s wife Michelle Kwan is certainly a celebrity. She won her first ice-skating World Championship in 1996 when she was just 15 years old. And had qualified for the Olympics in 1994 at age 13 only to be bumped by the recovering Nancy Kerrigan.
 
The two-time Olympian Kwan will wow Rhode Island during the campaign, but will she overshadow her husband?
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4. Claiborne Factor

Is he more than Claiborne Pell’s Grandson?

The venerable Claiborne de Borna Pell retired from the United States Senate nearly two decades ago. While older voters may be fond of the deceased Senator’s legacy – many Rhode Islanders were not old enough to vote or did not live in the state when Pell was in office.
 
While the Pell family name may have some limited impact and young Clay Pell’s campaign will dredge up lots of legacy stories (so many you may think Clay was the author of the legislation creating the Pell grants).
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3. GOP Factor

Can Pell beat a Republican?

Pell’s ability to skate between Raimondo and Taveras to win the Democratic primary in a coalition of union and progressive’s support will force him to win from the left.
 
Coming out of the primary will have defined him to the general election voter as a liberal of the highest degree. Brookings Institute Vice President Darrell West recently told an audience during a speech at the Newport Art Museum that progressives are back in vogue (citing the recent election of ultra progressive Bill deBlasio as Mayor of New York), but with Rhode Island’s economy stuck in a recession, Pell may have a difficult time convincing voters in the General Election that he is viable.
 
Remember in the past five elections – Rhode Islanders have elected Republicans to the Governor’s office four times (Almond twice, Carcieri twice) and in the last election while a liberal Lincoln Chafee won, more than 60% of the voters cast a ballot for the conservative Frank Caprio (D), GOP candidate John Robitaille or the business leaning Moderate Party candidate Ken Block.
 
Either GOP candidate will be able to paint Pell as too liberal for the challenges facing Rhode Island’s stagnant economy (9.1% unemployment).
Prev Next

2. Experience, any?

Does Pell have any experience?

Pell graduated from law school in 2008. That is right; Clay Pell has only been out of school for 5 plus years.
 
It is hard to believe that his experience in Coast Guard as a junior officer and his White House Fellowship qualifies him to be the chief executive of a state – he has never managed senior staff (he has never been senior staff), never managed employees of any significant scale, he has never managed a major budget, and he has zero economic development experience – a trait that some voters might look for after Chafee’s term.
Prev Next

1. Tough Enough?

Is Pell tough enough?

Both Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras demonstrated in the past three plus years in office the ability to make “tough” decisions.  
 
Taveras had to clean up the Cicilline budget mess that had nearly bankrupted the City of Providence and Taveras even fired all the teachers in the Capital City. Of course, he walked that dog backwards during the following months ensuring a lack of trust with both teachers and fiscal conservatives.  
 
Raimondo’s pension reform effort has drawn passionate support and venomous scorn.  Regardless, it has demonstrated Raimondo is battle tested.
 
Pell’s professional career is not only short (5 plus years), but also been advisory – the buck has never stopped at Clay Pell’s cubicle.
 
 
 

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Comments:

impossible.

Comment #1 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 02 05

A thoughtful article.

I can see both sides of the "outside money" argument.

Outside money can be a good thing. For example, RI's Congressional Delegation does not represent my views for good governance at all. So, I financially support congressional candidates in other states who do represent my views. I would not want to be shut out through people's pledges.

A good approach to ensuring that all candidates, even the ones with weenie warchests are heard would be to have more debates on TV and Internet.

Money, in itself, does not guarantee an outcome.

Comment #2 by Art West on 2014 02 05

Gina what do I get for $100,000? Do I get to play with a few hundred million dollars?
Influence peddling! She should go to jail.

Comment #3 by Real Clear on 2014 02 06




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