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    The Voice of the People

    Prop. 306 may not scrap disputed Clean Elections rules

    The controversial Clean Elections rules that led Republican lawmakers to attempt to curb the agency’s authority through Proposition 306 may be here to stay, even if voters approve the measure.

    Prop. 306 would subject the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission, which administers the state’s public campaign financing system, to the same regulatory rulemaking restrictions as other state agencies, including oversight by the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council (GRRC), whose members are appointed by the governor.

    Republican lawmakers included that provision in the measure in response to a years-long fight between the Secretary of State’s Office and the commission over the extent of its regulatory authority over outside independent expenditure groups that spend money in Arizona elections.

    Under state law, “dark money” groups and other outside campaign committees must file campaign finance reports for each quarter and for other designated reporting periods during election years. However, the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission requires them to report that spending more promptly: within 24 hours during the two weeks before an election, and by the following Tuesday outside that two-week window.

    Late in the election season, the Clean Elections reports are the only way the public can track campaign spending by outside groups in a timely manner. The last campaign finance reports of the 2018 election cycle were due Oct. 29, and covered the reporting period that ended on Oct. 20.

    So, without the Clean Elections reports, voters would know little about independent expenditures during the critical last weeks of the election. The Legislature in 2016 eliminated similar “trigger reports” that independent expenditure groups had to submit to the Secretary of State’s Office, which left Clean Elections as the only entity requiring spending-driven reporting by independent expenditures.

    At the heart of the dispute is not just the reporting requirements — those are part of the statutes approved by voters in 1998 when they created the Clean Election system — but the commission’s authority to enforce them. Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan and other Republican critics have argued that the Clean Elections Commission is acting beyond the scope of its jurisdiction and has usurped the secretary of state’s authority, creating a confusing and dual enforcement system for campaign finance laws where groups that spend money in elections can be punished for alleged violations, even if other election officials have determined that they didn’t break the rules.

    Clean Elections advocates, however, tout the commission as the only truly independent entity regulating campaign finance, and argue that its independence will be hindered if it’s subject to the whims of GRRC, whose members are appointed by the governor.

    In at least one high-profile case, the Clean Elections Commission took action on a campaign finance enforcement matter after other elections officials have declined to do so when it levied a $96,000 fine against Legacy Foundation Action Fund, a dark money group that aided Gov. Doug Ducey during the 2014 election with television ads against one of his rivals in the Republican primary. Legacy Foundation challenged the commission’s authority in a lawsuit, but lost after courts ruled that it missed a key deadline.

    Secretary of State Michele Reagan’s office filed a complaint with GRRC, which vets and approves regulations by state agencies, in a bid to overturn the Clean Elections rules governing reporting by independent expenditure groups and traditionally funded candidates, which includes civil penalties for those that don’t comply. The council ultimately ordered Clean Elections to rescind the rules, but the commission refused, saying the council lacked the authority to do so.

    Prop. 306 would place the commission explicitly under GRRC’s authority, which could preempt future fights over how far Clean Elections’ authority extends.

    It would also prohibit Clean Elections candidates from giving any of their public campaign funding to political parties. That became a controversial issue after the commission in 2017 passed a new rule clarifying publicly funded candidates’ ability to make payments to political parties and nonprofit organizations, and imposing new reporting standards for such payments.

    Advocates of Prop. 306 cite that rule as the primary impetus behind the ballot measure, while critics describe it as a Trojan horse meant to secure voter approval for the regulatory overhaul.

    The fate of that rule if Prop. 306 passes is unambiguous, since the measure will ban outright any such payments to parties. But it’s unclear exactly what, if anything, would happen to Clean Elections rules on independent expenditure reporting in a post-Prop. 306 world.

    Tom Collins, the executive director of the Clean Elections Commission, emphasized that the disputed reporting requirements are in state statute, and that the commission’s authority to enforce those requirements emanates from that. Because of that, Collins questioned whether the commission even needs specific rules to authorize its enforcement of those laws.

    “They’re not amending that part of the statute,” Collins said of Prop. 306.

    State Election Director Eric Spencer, who wrote the GRRC complaint from the Secretary of State’s Office against the Clean Elections Commission, took a similar view. He said his understanding is that Prop. 306 will apply to future issues, and he said he would be surprised if it resurrected the feud over Clean Elections’ reporting rules.

    “I have never assumed that, if Prop. 306 passes, it will put that controversy back on the front burner. I just have assumed that it will apply going forward. But I don’t know. I really don’t know,” Spencer said.

    The Arizona Department of Administration, which is GRRC’s parent agency, declined to comment.

    “Saying anything prior to the election would be speculation. I’m sure there will be additional clarity after Nov. 6,” ADOA spokeswoman Megan Rose said.

    GRRC member Frank Thorwald also declined to make any predictions about what would become of the disputed rules.

    “I’m not going to speculate on anything at this point. We’ll see what happens,” he said.

    The Clean Elections spending reports can be a timely source of information about election spending for members of the public. But finding those reports can be a challenge.

    During the 2016 election cycle, those reports appeared exclusively on the commission’s website, but not on the secretary of state’s website because of its dispute with Clean Elections over the extent of the commission’s authority. Since then, Clean Elections and Reagan’s administration put their differences aside and agreed to put the reports on the secretary of state’s new campaign finance website, known as See the Money.

    But Collins said the secretary of state’s system is unreliable, and recently resumed posting independent expenditure reports on the Clean Elections website.

    Read more

    With $30 Million, Obscure Democratic Group Floods the Zone in House Races

    BRADENTON BEACH, Fla. — The billboard flickered from the side of a truck, displaying an image of Representative Vern Buchanan, Republican of Florida, wearing a yachtsman’s cap. Keith Fitzgerald, a local dignitary invited by the group Floridians for a Fair Shake, stood before it as he tore into the lawmaker’s record.

    The congressman embodied “deep and profound corruption,” Mr. Fitzgerald told a thin crowd. The nautical caricature of Mr. Buchanan, a wealthy auto dealer, alluded to his purchase of a multimillion-dollar yacht on the same day he voted for a bill cutting upper-income tax rates.

    Floridians for a Fair Shake has criticized Mr. Buchanan for months, with paid advertising, campaign workers, and events like this, on a recent Sunday in a beachside parking lot. Yet Mr. Fitzgerald, a former Democratic state legislator and something of the guest of honor, confessed, “Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot about this group.”

    “They told me what they were doing,” he continued. “I’m not sure where the money comes from.”

    A structure unknown even to some of those involved, Floridians for a Fair Shake and 13 other groups around the country are funded and coordinated out of a single office in Washington, with the goal of battering Republicans for their health care and economic policies during the midterm elections.

    At the center of the effort is an opaquely named Democratic organization, the Hub Project, which is on track to spend nearly $30 million since 2017 pressuring members of Congress in their districts. The great bulk of its funding has come from so-called dark money — funds from donors who are not legally required to reveal their names.

    With that money, the Hub Project — in an initiative run by a former Obama administration official and public relations specialist, Leslie Dach, and Arkadi Gerney, a former political strategist for the liberal Center for American Progress — set up an array of affiliate groups around the country, many with vaguely sympathetic names like Keep Iowa Healthy, New Jersey for a Better Future and North Carolinians for a Fair Economy. The Hub Project then used them to mobilize volunteers and run advertising on policy issues against Republican members of Congress many months before the election.

    More than a dozen of the targeted lawmakers remain among the most endangered incumbents this year, including Representatives Rod Blum of Iowa, Bruce Poliquin of Maine, Steve Knight of California and George Holding of North Carolina.

    The quiet onslaught embodied two of the most important strategic choices by Democrats in the 2018 elections — putting health care and taxes at the core of their message, and using invigorated fund-raising on the left to challenge Republicans even in conservative-leaning areas. Several Democratic operatives involved in the group likened its role to that of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy network funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, during the Obama administration, albeit on a significantly smaller scale.

    While some of its visible activities during the midterms have been previously reported, the Hub Project has never before disclosed the scale of its efforts or discussed them extensively on the record.

    Mr. Gerney, the group’s executive director, said in an interview that the initiative targeting several dozen congressional districts had been designed to keep the focus on the Republicans’ legislative agenda in an election heavily dominated by President Trump’s personality. He described it as a test case for a larger theory of Democratic politics, defined by continuous attacks on Republican policies rather than on Mr. Trump.

    “It’s a very chaotic media environment and, understandably, lots of people are chasing Trump’s Twitter feed,” Mr. Gerney said. “But for most people, their health care, their family finances, their economic future — these things really matter.”

    Mr. Gerney displayed no ambivalence about using undisclosed contributions — traditionally a source of dismay for Democrats — to punish Republicans for last year’s $1.5 trillion tax law and their attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

    “We don’t believe in unilateral disarmament,” Mr. Gerney said.

    Mr. Gerney and others involved in the effort described it unfolding in stages, first targeting five congressional districts in the summer of 2017, then expanding to a map of 19 seats over the next 11 months. In some districts, the Hub Project’s state affiliates were running paid advertising months before other outside groups got involved — and before members of Congress mobilized to defend themselves.

    A former senior official with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Jessica Floyd, has overseen the advertising.

    Polling conducted for the Hub Project, and scrutinized by a pair of Stanford University researchers in an analysis shared with The New York Times, found that voters in districts where its affiliates operated were likelier to remember their representative’s votes on health care and taxes, though in some cases ad campaigns also appeared to generate backlashes among Republicans.

    In North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, the affiliate group North Carolinians for a Fair Economy spent about $736,000 criticizing Mr. Holding, a third-term lawmaker in a conservative-leaning district, and pressuring the Republican in television ads to “stop raising the cost of health care.” Carter Wrenn, a political adviser for Mr. Holding, said the attack had come as something of an ambush and forced Mr. Holding to scramble to air an ad defending his record.

    “They made the first big attack on George,” said Mr. Wrenn, adding that he had sought unsuccessfully to discern who was behind the attack: “We tried to figure out who they were, but there’s not much you can tell about who funds them and who they are, exactly.”

    Mr. Holding is battling for re-election against his Democratic challenger, Linda Coleman.

    There are some clues about the campaign’s financing: In July, Politico reported that an “obscure nonprofit” known as the Sixteen Thirty Fund was pouring millions into state-level advocacy groups, including Floridians for a Fair Shake. That same nonprofit funds several other initiatives linked to the Hub Project, including a health care advocacy program called Protect Our Care and a group, Not One Penny, that organizes opposition to Republican tax policies.

    Mr. Gerney confirmed that the Hub Project controls the money flowing from the Sixteen Thirty Fund into the state-level groups, but the larger nonprofit does not have to disclose its funding sources.

    Mr. Gerney also confirmed that the Hub Project controls a super PAC of its own, Change Now, which has been funding advertising this fall against a smaller list of Republican-held districts that includes some of the same targets. The group has filed a report with the Federal Election Commission showing it received $1.75 million in funding from the League of Conservation Voters, the influential environmental group, and several people involved with the effort said future reports were expected to show contributions from national labor unions.

    Tiffany Muller, the president of End Citizens United, a Democratic group that supports stricter campaign finance regulation, said dark money contributions were largely unpopular with voters. But she acknowledged that groups with “really innocuous-sounding names, like Americans for a Better America,” could leave a lasting mark with voters in part because they are perceived as independent from candidates.

    “They really dislike dark money and any type of political spending,” Ms. Muller said of voters. At the same time, she noted, research suggests “voters trust outside-group ads more than they trust candidate ads.”

    Mr. Dach said that the network of state groups had bolstered the Hub Project’s credibility with voters, connecting it with local activists who in some cases ended up starring in ads. Mr. Dach, a former Obama administration health care official, said the 14-month advocacy campaign had helped keep policy at the forefront of the midterm election.

    Mr. Dach and Mr. Gerney both said they decided to go on the record with the details of the campaign because they hoped Democrats would adopt it for future election cycles. In the past, Mr. Dach said, Democrats had lacked the funds and focus to sustain an argument on core issues like health care.

    “These issues are clear, they’re understandable to people, but I think we neglected and we were financially unable to sustain this kind of work before,” Mr. Dach said. “We have been on the same message — pre-existing conditions, age tax, health care costs, sabotage — from day one.”

    The event in Bradenton Beach taunting Mr. Buchanan was emblematic of the group’s approach — and its limitations. Democrats had been hopeful of flipping the conservative-leaning district, anchored in the comfortable and predominantly white suburbs on the south end of Tampa Bay. A prominent local trial lawyer, David Shapiro, jumped in as the Democratic candidate and the race intensified after a Hub Project researcher discovered Mr. Buchanan’s yacht purchase.

    Yet as voters on the right have grown more energized about the midterm elections, Mr. Buchanan has appeared somewhat more secure in his re-election prospects. As Mr. Fitzgerald assailed the Republican’s voting record, flanked by an activist dressed as a yacht captain, Vince Cavell looked on skeptically from a short distance.

    Mr. Cavell, 66, who retired to the area after a career in the computer business, shrugged at the attacks on Mr. Buchanan’s support for the tax law.

    “I’m enjoying the lower taxes,” he said.

    Read more

    What is Prop. 419 on the Phoenix ballot?

    By Victor Ren

    Phoenix voters will have one extra proposition on their ballot to consider. 

    A yes vote on Proposition 419 would require individuals and organizations to disclose any campaign donations valued at more than $1,000 that are intended to influence a Phoenix election. 

    The intent is exposing campaign donations sometimes called "dark money."

    "Proposition 419 presents a chance for the City of Phoenix to push back against wealthy individuals, corporations and special interests who are flooding our elections with dark money," Phoenix mayoral candidate Kate Gallego said in a statement. 

    "Phoenix residents deserve to know who is trying to influence our elections so voters can understand the motivation behind the spending," Gallego said. 

    Several individuals submitted arguments in favor of the proposition to the Phoenix voter pamphlet.  

    "Phoenix can become a national leader in the fight for campaign finance transparency by approving Proposition 419," former Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard said in the pamphlet. "I know Phoenix citizens value open and transparent democratic debate. We don’t want secret groups influencing our city elections."

    Phoenix mayoral candidate Daniel Valenzuela said in an emailed statement that this was a personal issue to him because he was attacked by dark money groups during his 2011 City Council run.

    “I voted with a majority of my City Council colleagues to refer this reform measure to the ballot," Valenzuela said. "My hope is that these sorts of tactics won’t become a part of the mayoral race, and we will instead focus on the real issues facing our city."

    No arguments were submitted opposing the measure. 

    However, the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce on its website opposes the measure.

    "It has the potential to open up the chamber's and other nonprofits' finances to groups that disagree with positions these groups take in regards to candidates or ballot measures," the organization website states. "Additionally, this effort will effectively suppress the business community's speech in elections."

    Read more

VPA Arizona is an Arizona nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the voices of Arizonan voters through participation in the electoral processes. VPA Arizona will work to increase ballot petition efforts, voter registration and leadership development.

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