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Printed from the Charlotte Observer - www.CharlotteObserver.com
Posted: Sunday, Sep. 28, 2008

Who's really trying to influence state races?

Published in: Jack Betts

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RALEIGH How do you like those TV ads that show a gang of silly suits gabbling over the prospect of getting Bev Perdue to mash a big red button marked Status Quo? How about those ads that suggest Pat McCrory is interested in raising his own salary in public office, but no one else's?

If you like them and think they're a valuable addition to N.C. elections, you've got some fat cat donors to the Republican Governors Association or the Democratic Governors Association, located hundreds of miles away, to thank. They're treating N.C. voters as malleable morons susceptible to appeals intended to make you think the other side's candidate is nothing but a dolt.

A 1972 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and a May 2008 interpretation by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals equating money and free speech are also to blame. In a decision five months ago that makes you wonder whether appellate judges in Richmond pay any attention to what's going on around them, the court ruled that North Carolina cannot subject independent election committees to the same campaign disclosure standards and contribution limits that regular political committees must follow. Why? Because the state didn't show it prevents corruption. Evidently they had no clue the state's former Speaker of the House is in the clink on charges related to big money, bribes and passing along contributions in the name of someone else.

Specifically, the court struck down a $4,000 limit on donations to independent campaigns at work in North Carolina. That's the same limit governing contributions in other N.C. races. Because of the ruling, there's nothing to stop so-called 527 groups from accepting huge donations from individuals, labor unions or corporations and funneling them into campaigns here, as long as they don't coordinate with candidates or make express appeals to elect this candidate or defeat that one.

This undermines the key election campaign disclosure program North Carolinians depend upon to know what's happening in elections. With donation limits and disclosure of contributions and expenditures, voters here have the opportunity to know who's financing elections before they vote. But if independent campaigns can channel big donations through other campaign groups, they uproot the foundation of the state's campaign financial disclosure system and hide from voters useful information about who's trying to influence N.C. elections.

They also allow independent campaigns to treat Tar Heel voters as malleable morons susceptible to base appeals about candidates. And it reduces productive lifetimes of public accomplishments by such experienced officials as Pat McCrory or Bev Perdue to cartoon-like proportions, portraying them as corrupt, hypocritical or just out for the main chance.

Staff members at the State Board of Elections have tried to get a handle on this in hopes of requiring at least some disclosure – and some acknowledgement by big donors that they know their money has been used in N.C. elections. Some news stories have shown that donors to independent committees did not know where their money went.

Perhaps Kieran Shanahan, a former Raleigh City Council member, can get this issue addressed in court. He has filed a lawsuit for the Pitt County Republican Party charging that the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee in Washington had taken corporate contributions and directed them into an N.C. campaign to influence legislative races. If he's right, that's the same kind of giving in the name of another that tripped up former House Speaker Jim Black when he used blank check donations to buy the vote of a colleague so he could stay in power. And it runs contrary to what N.C. campaign disclosure is about.

I hope Shanahan's lawsuit gets traction, but it won't even come up until Oct. 10, less than a week before early voting begins. By then, voters will have seen millions of dollars worth of ads and other campaign materials prepared by independent campaigns that don't have to follow rules that help tell N.C. voters what they need to know before election decisions are made. Anyone else see anything wrong with that?

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor based in Raleigh: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com

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