The People's Action Committee: A Super PAC Bucks The Trends
With the presidential race looking like an un-dramatic Obama-Romney plod to November, the most memorable thing about Election 2012 may turn out to be anything but the candidates.
Instead, it seems poised to go down as The Year of the Super PAC.
Look the figures: Through last week, independent expenditure committees had spent over $34 million on the Republican primary candidates. That’s already three times more than candidates spent on the entire 2008 Republican primary season.
Spending on Anti-Gingrich Ads in Florida are at almost $10 million (Source: Huffington Post)
The avalanche of outside money is making political parties nervous, making candidates anxious, and just plain depressing the socks off rest of us.
But at least one of the hundreds of registered independent expenditure committees out there is trying to use the system in a different way, and maybe – just maybe – building a model for the future.
Meet Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today, a Vermont-based Super PAC launched in December.
The name is a play on comedian Stephen Colbert’s Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. “We didn’t think people wanted to wait the extra day,” says Bob Stannard, the former Vermont legislator, activist, author and blues harp player who founded the PAC in coordination with KSE Partners, a lobbying firm based in Montpelier.
While the name may be tongue-in-cheek, the goal is dead serious. They want to highlight those issues and values brought into focus by the Occupy movement, among them progressive tax policies, clean energy development, the protection of collective bargaining rights and a system that doesn’t put college graduates into the world with $100,000 in student loan debt.
Super PACs generally align themselves with specific candidates, explains Todd Bailey, the group’s treasurer and main spokesperson in a phone interview last week. “We want this to be the People’s Action Committee.”
It’s a tall order in a world where casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife can give a pro-Gingrich Super PAC a $10 million cash infusion and help him win the South Carolina primary by 12 percentage points. (Depending how you calculate it, it may be the largest single donation in American campaign history.)
Stannard tells VtDigger.org that the sheer amount of money flooding the system is daunting, but ceding the field strikes him as unacceptable. In planning this organization, he says he and Bailey went through the process of acknowledging “OK, we may not like this, but shouldn’t we be participating? Either you use it to advance your agenda, or you just sit there and wish you had.”
Bailey notes that this PAC doesn’t have the Adelsons or the Koch Brothers on speed-dial – but that’s fine with him. “We’d rather than ten million people give us a dollar each.” While they certainly wouldn’t turn down a six-figure donation, there’s a lot of value those $10 and $20 contributions.
Their first ad, “Puppets of the One Percent,” aired during The Daily Show and Colbert Report in key South Carolina markets the day before that primary and got “a great response.” They hope to do the same with a fresh ads in upcoming primaries. Meanwhile, they’re looking for those progressive candidates they might want to support.
And they also want to tackle what Bailey describes as “the fundamental flaw” with Super PACs: their utter lack of transparency. His firm is currently working on software that would publically disclose donor names within 24 hours of their donation.
There are some positive signs, even in the last few days, that 'Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Today' may be a day or two ahead of the curve.
Many politicians seem to be realizing that bloated, overzealous Super PACs hijack campaign messaging and anger the public, and some are looking for ways to grab back the reins.
Consider the recent joint pledge between Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren to limit outside influence in their battle for the Senate. Or that Congressional Democrats are poised to introduce a new version of the DISCLOSE Act, which failed by a single vote in 2010. Among its other provisions, DISCLOSE 2.0 would require more timely disclosure of donor names, and would require ads produced by these groups to list the names of their top five donors on each ad.
Impossible as it seems at the moment, this may be only Year of the Super PAC.