Eric Davis: Shumlin out-of-step on campaign financing

Sen. Patrick Leahy, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, convened a hearing last week on a constitutional amendment to allow Congress and the states to regulate campaign finance. The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment, in Citizens United and other cases, does not now permit many types of campaign finance regulation.
Sen. Bernie Sanders is seriously considering running for president in 2016. The need for fundamental campaign finance reform would be one of the issues Sanders would emphasize in his campaign.
Leahy and Sanders recognize that campaign finance reform is an important issue, on its own merits and as a response to increasing citizen alienation from the political system. However, Gov. Peter Shumlin appears mired in the swamp of the current system, both as a candidate for re-election and as chair of the Democratic Governors Association.
Shumlin’s latest campaign finance report shows that his re-election committee had over $1 million in the bank, well before he begins to campaign for a third term. Shumlin, who defeated Randy Brock by 20 points in 2012, spent less than he raised two years ago. He is on track to carry an even larger balance forward after his likely re-election this November.
The details of Shumlin’s report demonstrate that his 2014 campaign relies more on large contributions than in previous cycles. While Shumlin may pick up some small contributions from Vermonters in the fall, a substantial share of his contributions are in the $500 to $2,000 range.
Many of the governor’s donors are either lobbyists, or principals with organizations that do business with the State of Vermont, are regulated by the state, or are subsidized by the state. Other contributions are from out-of-state businesses and organizations that Shumlin has met in his capacity as chair of the DGA.
Shumlin has apparently become quite aggressive in soliciting lobbyists and businesses for contributions to his re-election. Paul Heintz of Seven Days recently reported that the governor made fundraising calls himself to urge lobbyists to attend an event his campaign held in Montpelier. Officeholders often try to keep lobbyists at arms’ length during campaigns and leave these calls to their treasurers or other aides.
Heintz also reported that the DGA has filed suit in federal court in Connecticut against that state’s campaign finance laws. As in Vermont, Connecticut law places limits on the ability of outside funders such as the DGA to coordinate their activities with candidates’ own campaigns. Shumlin and the DGA want those restrictions ruled unconstitutional, so Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy may raise money at DGA events held in Connecticut, and then receive support from the DGA for advertising and other activities associated with his re-election campaign.
The arguments in the DGA’s papers in the Connecticut case are similar to the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority in campaign finance cases such as Citizens United. Indeed, the practices that the DGA and Shumlin want permitted in Connecticut are very much like those for which Brian Dubie’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign was fined —overly close coordination between the Dubie campaign and the Republican Governors Association.
There are at least two statewide candidates in Vermont this year who hope to qualify for the state’s public financing scheme. They are Progressive Dean Corren and Democrat John Bauer, both of whom are running for lieutenant governor. Corren and Bauer note that candidates who receive their financial backing from small individual donors and public financing are less beholden to the positions of interest groups than candidates who rely on large contributions from lobbyists and regulated businesses. Perhaps they need to debate Peter Shumlin on this issue.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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