Stemming the tide of muck

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By Sherry Robinson

Two years ago, in its Citizens United decision, the Supreme Court opened the floodgate for corporations, unions and other groups to spend as much as they want on “electioneering communications,” provided they’re independent of candidates.
That begat the super PAC, which can raise and spend a vault of money, provided it’s “independent.”
Left-leaning columnist E. J. Dionne saw the decision as part of “a larger initiative by moneyed conservatives to rig the electoral system against their opponents,” and most expected those opponents to be Democrats.
What few anticipated was for the parties to use the new weapon against their own. If you were a Newt Gingrich supporter, you watched your man fall in a hail of Mitt Romney-aligned, super PAC ads.
More recently, the union-funded Independent Source PAC attacked the campaign manager of Cara Valente-Compton, who is running against Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque. It said he was a Republican operative.
Interesting choice of words. Republicans have maligned opponents (as Steve Pearce did Heather Wilson) by calling them liberals; now Democrats besmirch the competition by calling them Republicans.
Valente-Compton immediately claimed to be the first victim in New Mexico of Citizens United, and she got free publicity describing her and her campaign manager’s Democratic credentials. Valente-Compton called on voters “to reject these ‘Karl Rove-like’ dirty tricks.” Another interesting choice of words, tying Stapleton to the Republican arch-villain.
For voters, the most annoying part is that the candidate can claim  clean hands as the super PAC slings mud – excuse me, “electioneering communications.”
Independent Source also bought advertising critical of the governor to weaken her standing as a potential vice presidential pick who might lure Hispanic votes. Republicans complained the PAC should have to observe New Mexico’s $5,000 limit on contributions. Nope, it’s independent.
Some day people will understand that any group can slither through this loophole, not just the one you happen to like.
In New Mexico, we have another creature of a court decision, and that’s the nonprofit engaged in “educating” voters.
Four years ago, two New Mexico nonprofits slammed incumbent legislators in nine districts, and five – three Democrats and two Republicans – were defeated. Several of them complained, and then-Secretary of State Mary Herrera ordered the groups to register as political committees; they sued the state, claiming they have a right to “educate and advocate for the well-being of New Mexicans.” The courts sided with the groups.
Recently the same two nonprofits – Southwest Organizing Project and the Center for Civic Policy -- sent fliers targeting Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, for his committee vote against a pet Progressive bill that supposedly closed a loophole exploited by big business. Griego has two Democratic opponents.
It’s not that simple. Sen. Peter Wirth has tried for years to get the bill through, but opponents say it’s anti-business. It was vetoed by the governor.
In the purest sense, I can understand allowing nonprofits to alert members or the public about an issue they think is important, to say, please call your legislator and support this bill or oppose that one. Unfortunately, that’s not what the organizations in question do; they attack elected officials in a way that’s unfair and often inaccurate.
Which is something they have in common with the creatures of Citizens United.
Lately, we saw a ray of sunshine. In response to a super PAC that wants to play on the president’s relationship with a controversial former minister, Republican contender Mitt Romney said, “I want to make it very clear: I repudiate that effort. I think it’s the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign.”
We voters don’t have any control over the coming torrent of muck, but we can hold candidates accountable for the activities of these so-called independent PACs and nonprofits.
Sherry Robinson
New Mexico News Service