Listen up, Arizona.
It’s time to take the law into your own hands – by changing it, so that you can see who is really running this state.
We’ve waited a long time for Arizona’s leaders to stand up for us, to embrace the fundamental concept that we should know who is behind the dark-money campaigns that increasingly are buying this state’s elections.
Instead, our leaders – some of them the beneficiaries of those dark-money campaigns -- have steadfastly and repeatedly refused to demand transparency in campaign spending. Anonymous interests spent more than $15 million getting the governor, Corporation Commission and Legislature they wanted in 2014, and hundreds of thousands of dollars more in the 2016 legislative races.
And what was our leaders’ response? In 2017, they passed a law that will open the floodgates to even more dark-money spending in 2018 and beyond.
These guys are taking it to the people
Now, a pair of longtime political players are hoping voters are ready to say “no more.” Last week, former Attorney General Terry Goddard and Democratic strategist Bob Grossfeld launched a citizens’ initiative aimed at requiring disclosure of major dark-money donors.
Under the proposed constitutional amendment – the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative – any group spending more than $10,000 on a state or local campaign would have to disclose all donors who contributed $2,500 or more. The group would be responsible for identifying the original source of the money, rather than just the last non-profit “social welfare” group through which it was laundered.
Outlaw Dirty Money has until July 5 to collect the signatures of 225,963 voters, in order to get on the November 2018 ballot.
So here comes the hard part – and the most inspiring part.
This will be a grassroots effort.
Not so long ago, conventional wisdom said you had to hire professional circulators in order to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot, given the number of signatures required. Then along came Save Our Schools Arizona, a group of average citizens who decided to fight our leaders and their dark-money backers who brought us universal school vouchers.
There will be plenty of pushback
These citizen volunteers launched a petition drive and managed to put Arizona’s new expanded voucher law on hold, giving voters the final say next year. (That is, unless the dark-money groups can convince a judge to toss it off the ballot.)
These same citizens are now gearing up to work on the Outlaw Dirty Money initiative. (If you’d like more information on how to get involved, email the campaign at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Look for heavy pushback wrapped in a phony First Amendment narrative. Opponents will claim that corporations and the people behind them have a First Amendment right to spend whatever they want to get their candidates elected without anybody knowing about it.
Gov. Doug Ducey has already signaled his opposition to the initiative, saying disclosure would subject donors to harassment.
"I think people have a First Amendment right as well to participate and not be bullied," he told Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services.
So says the governor who enjoyed $3.5 million in dark money support that aggressively attacked any opponent who stood in his way in 2014. That $3.5 million, we would later find out via IRS records, came from six dark-money groups with ties to David and Charles Koch.
Somehow, I doubt they gave anonymously to avoid being bullied.
Dark money jeopardizes democracy
Count longtime Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin among the supporters of the initiative.
“It (dark money) jeopardizes democracy,” he told me. “Not knowing who is funding our elections jeopardizes all of our democracy.”
But don’t take his word for it.
Consider the words of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the 2010 Citizens United decision, decreeing that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend as much as they want on political campaigns. Note that he didn’t say they have a constitutional right to spend all that cash under the cover of darkness.
"The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way,” Kennedy wrote. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."
Or consider the words of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, in a separate 2010 case called Doe vs. Reed, in which the court ruled that petition signers don’t generally have a First Amendment right to keep their identities secret.
“Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed,” Scalia wrote, in a concurring opinion. “For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously … and even exercises the direct democracy of initiative and referendum hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism.
“This,” he wrote, “does not resemble the Home of the Brave.”