Should political candidates who rail against super PACs accept help from them when facing opponents bankrolled by billionaire benefactors such as Newt Gingrich sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson?
Or should they take a principled stand and reject the corrupting influence of unlimited super-PAC dough — even if it could cost them the election?
President Barack Obama answered the question last week — making major waves in the process — when his aides announced that the Obama campaign would begin assisting the main Democratic super PAC, Priorities USA Action, in raising funds for his reelection.
Obama has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. Supreme Court rulings that destroyed campaign fundraising limits, memorably shaming the justices for the Citizens United decision at his 2010 state of the union speech. The Supremes sat just a few feet away.
But with Obama’s approval ratings in the danger zone and Republican super PACs dwarfing their Democratic counterparts, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina blogged last week that “with so much at stake,” the campaign would not “unilaterally disarm” by forswearing super PACs.
Unsurprisingly, conservatives accused Obama of hypocrisy.
Slightly more surprisingly, the New York Times slammed Obama for abandoning the “higher ground,” editorializing that his decision “fully implicates the president, his campaign and his administration in the pollution of the political system unleashed by Citizens United and related court decisions.”
In Vermont, there’s been no harsher critic of super PACs and Citizens United than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). He has introduced a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and is backing a resolution opposing “corporate personhood” that some 30 Vermont towns will take up in Town Meeting Day elections on March 6.
When Sanders warns, “We are evolving very rapidly into a political system where members of the House and Senate are going to be literally owned and controlled by their corporate sponsors,” he doesn’t sound like your usual poll-tested politician. He sounds like he means it.
But in a sign of the times, even Sanders says he couldn’t rule out accepting help from a super PAC if push came to shove. In an interview in his Burlington office earlier this week, Vermont’s junior senator told Fair Game that if faced with a super-PAC-financed opponent this fall, a Sanders-supported super PAC is “something we would look at. But I hope we’re not going to have to.”
Sanders is up for reelection in November. So far, he’s running unopposed. But he’s amassed a war chest of close to $4 million, he says, in the event a well-financed challenger emerges.
“There is no member of the United States Senate that Wall Street, the oil companies, the coal companies, the military-industrial complex would like to defeat more than me,” Sanders says, before adding, “I think it’s not going to happen. So I think that’s kind of a hypothetical question that I’m not going to have to deal with. But we can chat about it if, six months from now, many, many millions of dollars are coming in attacking me.”
Sanders says he and other anti-super-PAC politicians face the same dilemma as Obama.
“What [Obama] is saying is, ‘Fine, I dislike the idea of a super PAC. But what do you really want me to do? You want me to allow billionaires and corporate leaders to spend huge sums of money against me and I don’t have the ability to respond?’” Sanders says. “You could say that holding up the correct moral position would generate a lot of public support. Politically it might be good for him. On the other hand, he will argue that he doesn’t want to be in a position where he’s outspent two or three to one.”
Neither does Bernie. If anti-Sanders forces start dumping millions into the race this fall, look for a white-haired, bespectacled senator with one hand outstretched — palm open — and the other firmly holding his nose.
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A Random Encounter in a Montpelier Alleyway
GUY IN TRENCH COAT: Psst. Hey, buddy. Wanna buy some transmission lines?
VERMONT TAXPAYER: Who, me?
GITC: Yeah, you. Wanna buy a majority stake in VELCO?
GITC: VELCO. Vermont Electric Power Company. You know, the folks who manage the high-voltage transmission lines that move power through the state.
VT: Why would I want to buy that?
GITC: Because you could make a fortune! It’s a guaranteed 14 percent return on your investment.
VT: Fourteen percent? Damn, that’s pretty good. How much do I have to invest?
GITC: $500 million.
VT: $500 million?! Are you nuts? For power lines? Even if I had $500 million, why would I invest it in power lines and not public schools or homeless shelters or something like that?
GITC: Owning power lines is like owning a tollbooth on the only road in town. Everyone has to pass through it, so everyone has to pay. It’s a cash cow!
VT: Well, what if the power lines need millions of dollars’ worth of upgrades? Wouldn’t I, as majority owner, be on the hook to pay for that?
GITC: Well, technically, yes. But you’d make it all back! Remember, 14 percent return. Guaranteed!
VT: I dunno. Maybe we should study the pros and cons of such a big purchase before diving in.
GITC: Great idea. That’ll only cost you $250,000.
VT: Well, that doesn’t sound so bad.
GITC: It isn’t. But we need the money now, ’cause the study’s gotta be done by April.
VT: By April? That seems kinda soon for vetting such a big purchase. Why the rush?
GITC: Well, that’s a little complicated. You see, Vermont’s two biggest electric utilities — Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service — want to merge in May. And if they do, the merged company — which would be owned by Canadians, by the way — will own a majority stake in VELCO and control that tollbooth. The Canadians could build new power lines through your backyard or use Vermont’s transmission system as a thoroughfare to pump power to New York! And the state would be powerless to stop them. It’s all very lucrative ... for whoever owns VELCO.
VT: Wait a second. Who’s behind this idea to purchase VELCO?
GITC: The main mover is Sen. Vince Illuzzi (R-Essex/Orleans). He wants to condition approval of the Green Mountain Power merger on the state buying half of VELCO.
VT: Illuzzi, eh? Wasn’t he the guy who wanted the state to buy the Connecticut River hydro dams a decade ago?
GITC: Yeah, and the state didn’t do it. Big mistake. This is just like that — only the state has a chance to get it right this time.
VT: By spending $500 million?
GITC: Exactly. Trust me, it’s a good deal. Nothing could possibly go wrong. And if you believe that, I’ve got a covered bridge to sell you...
Occupy an Auditorium
College campuses saw some of the fiercest clashes between police and Occupy Wall Street protesters last year. Remember the roughing up of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky at the University of California, Berkeley?
The worst incident — the brazen pepper spraying of a dozen peaceful student protesters by University of California, Davis police — sparked widespread condemnation. For many, it was the defining image of the Occupy movement.
Goddard College president Barbara Vacarr was outraged that higher educators deployed riot police in response to student occupations. Her response? Organize a first-ever Occupy Conference at Goddard to explore “the ramifications of the Occupy Wall Street movement for higher education and the nation.”
“We all say we want to nurture and cultivate students who are going to change the world,” Vacarr tells Fair Game. “Then when they try to do it, we call the police. They get pepper sprayed.”
The March 10 event will feature panel discussions that cover OWS’ origins, ways to “maximize its potential” and how colleges can respond to student activists “without calling the police.”
Headlining the confab will be Les Leopold, author of The Looting of America, plus two key players in the national Occupy movement: Amin Husain, who facilitated the first general assembly in New York’s Zuccotti Park and will do the same thing at Goddard; and Sandy Nurse, who organized the ill-fated Brooklyn Bridge march. Moderating will be Anne Galloway of the news website VTDigger and Shay Totten of Chelsea Green Publishing (and, I’m told, the former author of this column.)
Tickets are $10 and seating is limited. Though if it sells out, you could always just occupy the conference in protest. What is Goddard gonna do — call the campus police?
A group of Burlington lefties is raising money to bring Free Speech TV to Burlington Telecom’s lineup.
FSTV is a 24-hour, commercial-free news station that airs “Democracy Now!”; “The Thom Hartmann Program” (including the weekly “Brunch with Bernie”); “Gay USA”; and independent documentaries and interviews you won’t find on Fox News or the Drudge Report.
The Friends of Free Speech TV in Burlington — a group that includes Greg EplerWood, Melinda Moulton, Sam Mayfield, Lauren-Glenn Davitian, Dan Higgins and Robin Lloyd — has pledged $5000 toward the $10,000 start-up cost and has until March 1 to raise the rest on Kickstarter. As of last week, they needed about $3200.
Says Mayfield, an independent filmmaker who financed her labor documentary, Wisconsin Rising, using Kickstarter, “We absolutely need media that shine a light in dark places.”