Faced with an influx of conservative super PAC money in Vermont elections, the state's Democratic congnoscenti have been all over the map about how to respond. They say they hate on super PACs, but, well, they wouldn't mind taking a bit of their cash.
Take Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration. Asked last week about the impact of super PACs on Vermont politics, the governor said, "I really feel strongly that candidates should raise and spend money and advocate for their own candidacy."
Was he disappointed that the liberal super PAC, Priorities PAC, has failed thus far to keep up in fundraising with the conservative super PAC, Vermonters First?
"I'll be honest with you. I wish all the PACs would dry up and go away," he said, speaking after a Winooski press conference. "In an ideal world, that's how we would do democracy in Vermont."
But just days later, Shumlin's own secretary of administration, Jeb Spaulding, was raising money for and recording a radio ad for the liberal super PAC. And according to Spaulding, he got the idea to collaborate with Priorities PAC from Shumlin's own campaign manager, Alex MacLean.
Spaulding (pictured above), a former state treasurer, says he decided over the weekend that he'd like to lend a hand to his former deputy, Beth Pearce, who was appointed to fill his post in January 2011 when Spaulding went to work for the Shumlin administration. Pearce, a fellow Democrat, is now facing a tough election fight against Rutland City Treasurer Wendy Wilton, a Republican.
"I decided I wanted to run some ads supporting Beth Pearce by myself and I'd raise some money," Spaulding says.
So he got in touch with MacLean, who took a leave of absence from the Shumlin administration to run the governor's reelection campaign, asking how he'd go about setting up a campaign committee to raise and spend money on Pearce's behalf.
"She said, 'Why don't you just go to the one that's already in business,'" Spaulding says, referring to Priorities PAC.
MacLean confirms the account.
"He literally asked me the question, 'How should I do this? How do I set up a PAC?'" MacLean recalls. "I said, well, one thing you could do is talk to the guys at Priorities PAC, because they have everything set up. And that was the extent of the conversation. Next thing I know, Jeb had an ad."
Though super PACs are free to raise and spend as much as they like on behalf of political candidates, they are barred from coordinating expenditures with those candidates' campaigns. Doing so can trigger far more stringent campaign finance laws, which can limit a PAC's ability to raise and spend funds.
Spaulding acknowledges he has provided campaign advice to Pearce as she seeks to hold onto his former office, and he spoke with her as recently as Monday. He turned up last Thursday at a Statehouse press conference she held, spoke at her campaign kickoff, wrote a letter-to-the-editor on her behalf and donated directly to her campaign.
But he says he never spoke with Pearce about his plan to team up with the liberal super PAC — and he says he feels "125 percent" confident he complied with campaign finance rules.
"I think there's absolutely no connection between the advertisement and the money to run the advertisement and anything I've spoken to Beth about," he says. "I don't think I've told anybody in her campaign anything about this."
Ryan Emerson, Pearce's campaign manager, says that while the campaign has received advice from both Spaulding and MacLean, neither has discussed with him anything relating to the super PAC.
"If the question is whether there's any coordination, there's not," Emerson says. "I had not heard of [the ad's] existence until I read about it on VTDigger yesterday."
According to campaign finance reports, Priorities PAC has spent $2912 on Spaulding's one-minute radio ad, in which he says, "Beth Pearce is the obvious choice for state treasurer. She's the candidate of merit. There's a reason why the labor and business community both stand by her. Beth Pearce is by far the most qualified candidate for state treasurer."
Spaulding says he helped raise at least $600 to put the ad on the radio, including $250 from himself, $250 from Scott Skinner and $100 from Cameron O'Connor. In total, the liberal super PAC has raised roughly $30,000, according to its website.
The leaders of Priorities PAC — anti-nuclear lobbyist Bob Stannard, the group's treasurer, and KSE Partners lobbyist Todd Bailey, who serves as its consultant — did not respond to two emails earlier this week requesting information about the super PAC's fundraising and spending activities.
How does Spaulding feel about teaming up with a super PAC? Much the same as his boss.
"I wish they didn't exist. I believe there's too much money in politics," he says. "But I think you've gotta deal with the realities in front of you."