Following the campaign money
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | July 22,2012
MONTPELIER — When candidates for public office filed their financial disclosures last Monday, anyone following the money quickly arrived at the doorstep of Gov. Peter Shumlin.
The first-term incumbent has raised three times as much money from outside sources as his Republican challenger, much of it coming from businesses, political action committees and out-of-staters who have chipped in the $2,000 maximum.
So what exactly are they paying for? Depends on who you ask.
“Money does not influence my views on what’s best for Vermonters,” Shumlin says. “So I’m probably not the best example of how money influences politics, because I’m super sensitive to ensuring there is no link between contributions and access.”
Wally Roberts, executive director of Common Cause Vermont, isn’t buying it.
“Frankly, I don’t believe any politician who tells me that campaign contributions don’t have an effect on their thinking,” Roberts says.
Roberts admits that he doesn’t have a shred of hard evidence linking private money to the public votes of any Vermont candidate. But he says the corrupting influence of money in politics doesn’t require the kind of quid-pro-quo scandal that would lead the evening newscast.
Roberts, whose nonprofit organization is in the process of compiling a database that would allow voters to crosscheck candidates’ votes with campaign contributions from related industries, keeps an E.B. White quote near his desk.
“Whenever money changes hands, something goes along with it — an intangible something that varies with the circumstances,” White wrote in 1975.
For White, it was the corporate sponsorship of the media — specifically, Xerox’s underwriting of a 23-page investigative report in Esquire Magazine — that threatened “the erosion of the free press in America.”
Roberts and others fear his lament might apply all too well to politics.
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A Vermont Press Bureau analysis of Shumlin’s campaign finance disclosure shows that well more than half of his $676,000 fundraising total — $383,000 — comes from individuals or private entities that will be ineligible to vote for him in the election.
The haul includes $62,000 from 17 political action committees, $93,000 from 60 businesses and corporations, and $228,000 from 173 individuals who reside outside the state of Vermont.
Some industries are particularly well-represented. Renewable energy interests, for example, account for at least $28,000 in contributions. Donations from organized labor, meanwhile, exceed $20,000. Individuals and businesses from the telecommunications industry have given more than $10,000.
And Vermont’s campaign finance statutes have the effect of underplaying the role of corporate money in public politics. Whereas federal election laws require contributors to disclose the name of their employer, Vermont’s do not.
That means people like Sal Iannuzzi and three family members, who donated $7,000 to Shumlin’s campaign, appear on state forms as individuals.
Iannuzzi is CEO of the Internet jobs giant Monster.com.
“It’s a giant hole in our campaign finance laws that really hides the true extent of corporate influence,” Roberts says.
Renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf has in recent years become a convenient lightning rod for campaign finance controversy.
The founder of NRG Systems, AllEarth Renewables, Green Acre Solar Partners and other energy firms has donated thousands of dollars to Shumlin for Governor since 2009.
Shumlin has gone on to support subsidies and incentives that have fueled considerable revenue for Blittersdorf’s companies, a link seized on by enemies of the governor’s renewable energy policies.
The number of companies owned by Blittersdorf allows him a legal path around the $2,000 limit on individual donations. So far in this election cycle, Blittersdorf has given at least $10,000 via four firms and a personal check.
Blittersdorf says he gets that people might view with cynicism the motives behind his financial role in the political process.
“Some people don’t believe it that I’m not just about my own business and its unique needs,” he says. “A lot of people think business people only think about themselves and don’t give a damn about anything else.”
But he says he found in Shumlin a viable candidate who shared his belief in the ills of fossil fuels and the salvation of solar.
“This is about a worldview, not money. And I finally figured out that to affect policy, you have to start to engage in the political process,” Blittersdorf says. “I was just running businesses, and what I figured out was that to switch to renewables, to get off nuclear power and coal, we were going to have to change laws.”
Matt McDonald, Vermont director of 1199 Service Employees International Union Health Care Workers East, says his organization’s five-figure donation to Shumlin’s re-election effort is similarly pure of motive.
SEIU, which doesn’t have a single member in Vermont, has donated $12,000 between two political action committees.
“We have done this because we believe in his leadership and think his leadership is in the best interest of the people of Vermont,” McDonald says. “And we believe we share the same vision and values about what is important to the people of Vermont.”
Specifically, McDonald says the union supports Shumlin’s push for single-payer. SEIU recently launched a new group here that will soon fund a series of television ads in support of Shumlin’s publicly funded health care plan.
The group is simultaneously trying to enlist 5,000 home care attendants in Vermont to join SEIU, a campaign that will require the Legislature to pass enabling legislation next year.
McDonald and Shumlin say the group’s donations to Shumlin’s campaign have nothing to do with whether or not he’ll support their push for the legislation in 2013.
“That’s way off in the future. That’s a 2013 question, really,” McDonald says. “Our support for Gov. Shumlin is about his commitment to health care for all, and affordable health care for all.”
Not everyone is so willing to discuss their financial support for Shumlin. The beverage industry, for instance, was notably silent. A political action committee underwritten by Coca-Cola declined to comment on its $6,000 donation to Shumlin for Governor. And David Farrell, president of Farrell Distributing Corp., didn’t return a call seeking comment on his company’s $2,000 donation to the governor.
Both groups successfully lobbied earlier this year against the expansion of the bottle bill, and against the repeal of a law that currently allows beverage distributors to retain unredeemed 5-cent bottle deposits.
They are among several companies, located both in and out of Vermont, that didn’t return multiple calls seeking comment.
“This is a hot-button area and corporations don’t want to be on record about this stuff,” Roberts says.
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Paul Burns, executive director of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, lobbied unsuccessfully earlier this year for legislation that would have prohibited corporations from making contributions directly to candidates.
“Maybe one way of gauging how important corporate dollars are is how unsuccessful we advocates have been to date in trying to prevent corporations from being able to give,” Burns says.
Burns says he can’t produce the smoking gun that would help generate the political will necessary for sweeping statutory reforms.
“It’s difficult to impossible to prove,” Burns says. “Rarely will you find a written trail where someone says we’re giving you this money to secure a vote on this issue.”
But Burns says even the best-intended officeholders are subject to influence by the people funding their political campaigns, even if they aren’t aware of it.
“There is a reason corporations and other interests, be they unions or PACs, are giving money, and to suggest it’s always only in the interest of good government is naďve,” Burns says. “They’re giving it for a reason, and they’re continuing to give it, and I think corporations in particular look at it as an investment that could benefit them.”
Burns says eliminating the perception of influence alone is reason enough to get corporate money out of political campaigns.
“The only way to remove the potential taint of that influence is to prevent it altogether as a matter of state policy,” he says.
Kevin Ellis, a partner with the Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners and longtime Statehouse observer, says he “expects nothing in return” for the $5,000 that his firm has given to Shumlin this cycle ($3,000 came from a political action committee run by KSE).
“I know that sounds corny, but we truly expect nothing in return,” he says.
Ellis admits that being a high-dollar donor comes with some modest benefits.
“Does the face time last a little longer? Maybe,” he says. “Do the calls get returned a little quicker? Inevitably, sure.”
But Ellis says that when it comes to substance, KSE doesn’t have any edge over firms that give nothing.
“If you want a meeting with this governor, you can get a meeting with this governor,” he says.
Compared to the rest of the country, Ellis says, Vermont is a paragon of political virtue.
“People here get all hot and bothered over $15,000 — in other states you’re talking millions and millions,” he says. “There is so much money that could be raised and spent in this state that is not being raised and spent, it’s almost laughable.”
Ellis attributes Vermont’s small-ball ethic to the “ick factor” that comes with high-dollar donations.
“We’ve worked in almost every state, and Vermont retains a culture of honesty that is unheard of anywhere else in the country,” Ellis says. “There’s something different about Vermonters. We’re just not going to do certain things. We check ourselves.”
Roberts says Ellis has a legitimate point.
“I 100 percent agree with Kevin — we’re very small potatoes and the action here is penny ante,” Roberts says.
But the “check,” Roberts says, needs to come not from self-policing politicians and lobbyists, but from statutes that eliminate even the possibility of corruption.
“Even though we’re small potatoes, the potential is still there for the casting of doubt on the whole system because we allow these influences to seep in,” Roberts says.
If White’s maxim is true — that whenever money changes hands, something goes along with it — then so long as corporations give to politics, Roberts says, politics will give to corporations.