Brendan Fischer of Center for Media and Democracy discusses the electoral battle between organized money and organized people.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
We’re continuing our post-election coverage with an analysis of how the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity-supported candidates fared across the country. We’ll also look at what grassroots groups are doing to limit the ability of moneyed interests to influence elections.
Now joining us to discuss this is Brendan Fischer. He’s a general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy.
Thank you so much for joining us.
BRENDAN FISCHER, GENERAL COUNSEL, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: So, Brendan, the media is kind of fixated on some of the bigger races in–the governor’s race in Virginia, New Jersey, and New York. But can you give us a quick rundown of some of the local election results that the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity were involved in and kind of how some of those smaller local elections that didn’t get as much attention, how those kind of played out.
FISCHER: Sure. Well, so the Koch brothers were involved in some of those more high-profile races. David Koch gave $50,000 directly to can do Ken Cuccinelli, who lost his election. They also gave–David Koch also gave $200,000 to a super PAC supporting Lhota in New York. And the fact that he was able to give $200,000 was actually the result of an earlier court decision just a few months ago following Citizens United striking down the New York State limitations on independent expenditure groups, which basically opened the door to super PACs and opened the door to David Koch’s $200,000 contribution to Lhota in New York.
But there were also smaller local races that the Kochs and David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity were involved in. One was a race in Coralville, Iowa, where Americans for Prosperity spent a significant amount of money trying to influence mayoral and city council races in this tiny town of 20,000 people. And this actually backfired. Even conservatives in the community who supported the general principles that AFP purported to represent said that they didn’t like this outside group coming in and spending all this money in their community. They also–the Koch brothers also spent a significant amount of money in Douglas County, Colorado, in a school board race, and in that race they actually were successful. They spent an astounding $350,000 to help elect four candidates to the school board. Interestingly, they used the same “It’s working” campaign slogan as Americans for Prosperity used in Wisconsin back in 2012 to support the retention of Governor Scott Walker in his recall election.
NOOR: And in some news out of California, some Koch brothers groups, related groups, were recently found to have violated California’s campaign finance disclosure laws, and they’ll pay a record fine. Can you tell us what happened?
FISCHER: Sure. Well, so this was a major enforcement action by California’s elections board. Basically, the board brought an action against what they call the Koch brothers’ network for shuffling $15 million between multiple entities in order to influence two 2012 ballot measures, all while keeping the donors secret.
So this Arizona nonprofit called Americans for Responsible Leadership gave a significant amount of money to another nonprofit, which in turn spent money influencing these ballot initiatives, one to limit taxes and the other two clamp down on union rights. And as a result of this enforcement action, the California Elections Board discovered basically that there was a daisy chain, a dark-money shell game, this effort to shuffle the money between multiple nonprofit entities in order to keep donors in the dark about who is trying to buy their vote and who is trying to influence elections. And at least two of those groups, the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights and the American Future Fund, have received significant amounts of money from the Koch brothers network. And the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights basically exists as a conduit for Koch money.
As a result of this enforcement action, the Center to Protect Patients’ Rights was fined $1 million, and another nonprofit group was required to refund the nearly $15 million that they received in order to influence this ballot initiative. And you’re seeing similar things happening around the country. In Wisconsin back in the recall elections, I saw–we have begun to see multiple pots of money shifted between different nonprofit groups, basically with the purpose of keeping voters in the dark about who’s trying to influence their vote, who’s trying to influence their democracy, and in the end, who’s actually trying to buy influence and access to candidates, because you can be sure that even if these donors are not making their identities known to voters, they are making their identities known to candidates, and they’re probably going to expect something in return.
NOOR: And so, you know, obviously what the Kochs are doing is within their rights under current U.S. law. What concerns you specifically about the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity?
FISCHER: Sure. Well, I think–I mean, you’ve seen this drastic shift, this drastic tilt in the political playing field towards the 1 percent, or, more accurately, the 0.001 percent, after the Citizens United decision and related campaign-finance rulings by the Supreme Court and others. Those who have the most resources are those who exercise the most power. So Koch brothers are–they’ve seen their wealth increase exponentially in recent years, and they’re pouring it into elections to tilt the political landscape in their favor.
And that’s hugely problematic. I mean, our democracy is premised on the notion of one person, one vote. And if you have a small segment of the population that’s able to completely shift the political landscape and set the terms of the debate and decide what policies are important, which policies are be discussed, which policies are being talked about, that’s a major problem. And they’re doing it both with independent expenditures through groups like Americans for Prosperity, but also through direct campaign contributions. And I think if you speak to any elected official, they’ll tell you that they have to spend a significant amount of time on the phone with donors, going to fundraisers. And what they end up doing is spending more time with people who can give money, rather than spending time with the people who they actually represent. So the messages they’re hearing are from those with the deepest pockets rather than actually coming to understand what the real needs and concerns of their constituents are.
NOOR: And there’s also a growing backlash against Citizens United. There are some 14 states where some resolutions have been passed for a constitutional amendment against Citizens United. And some of these initiatives have been bipartisan. Can you talk a little bit about this?
FISCHER: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And actually, in this last election, just this last week, both Colorado and Montana, voters in Colorado and Montana approved resolutions with over 70 percent of the vote to reverse Citizens United, get money out of politics, and to end corporate personhood. And you’ve seen over a dozen states at this point pass these resolutions, calling on Congress to amend the Constitution and to get money out of politics.
One of the really interesting races you’re seeing right now or one of the really interesting states where you’re seeing this action happen right now is in Arkansas. And Arkansas is a deeply red state, but there’s a petition happening where if the activists can get 63,000 signatures, they’ll put a Citizens United referendum on the ballot for next November. And if that’s successful, if voters do approve that referendum, it would be the first southern state to approve this type of resolution. And I think all of this, all this together, both the fact that Arkansas seems to be moving towards a resolution and that states like Montana, which are pretty red, which voted for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election, the fact that a state like Montana can approve a resolution with 70 percent of the vote, a resolution to get money out of politics with over 70 percent of the vote, really shows that this is a genuinely bipartisan issue that the majority of Americans want their voices to be heard in a democracy, and they don’t want the Citizens United rulings to continue to allow wealthy donors to reshape American politics according to their mold.
NOOR: Brendan Fischer, thank you so much for joining us.
FISCHER: Thanks for having me.
NOOR: You can follow The Real News @TheRealNews on Twitter. You can Tweet me @JaisalNoor with questions, comments, concerns, anything you want.
Thank you so much for joining us.
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