What Should We Think About the Recent Episode of Dark Money in New Mexico Politics and How Should We React?

A front page article by political reporter Michael Gerstien in the Thursday, May 14, 2020 edition of the Santa Fe New Mexican declared “Dark money’ groups back U.S. House candidate in packed primary”. See https://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/elections/dark-money-groups-back-u-s-house-candidate-in-packed-primary/article_410d8624-95fd-11ea-853b-0702cf3dd2a8.html.  The story cited the fact that two dark money PACs, Perise Practical Inc. and Avacy Initiatives Inc. had spent more than $300,000 on TV ads in support of Democratic candidate for New Mexico Congressional District 2, Teresa Leger Fernandez. Two other stories on the subject of the revelation from information derived from reports to the Federal Election Commission also appeared that day in the online periodical POLITICOhttps://www.politico.com/newsletters/morning-score/2020/05/14/garcia-notches-big-win-for-republicans-in-ca-25-787606 and the Albuquerque Journal  https://www.abqjournal.com/1455968/cd3-candidate-criticized-for-support-from-dark-money-groups.html. On May 25, 2020,  the Santa Fe New Mexican  published a follow up article. See https://www.santafenewmexican.com/search/?f=html&q=Dark+money+candidates+CD3&d1=2020-05-25&d2=2020-05-30&sd=desc&l=25&t=article&nsa=eedition.

Since then, Ms. Leger won the primary race on June 2, 2020.  Before and after the election I was involved in many conversations about what to think about these revelations of Dark Money being behind the favored and ultimately victorious candidate.  One statement I heard over and over was that Ms. Leger “took” or “received” Dark Money in her campaign.  I want to make one thing very clear: Ms. Leger did not accept or receive this Dark Money.

The term “Dark Money” is used to describe campaign money that is spent by a third party, usually a PAC, that benefits a candidate but does not go directly to him or her.  In this case, as is it is with many, the money was expended by the PACs to produce campaign materials—TV commercials—urging people to vote for her. Under FECA, a candidate and the third party PAC are not supposed to communicate or “coordinate” their actions. Otherwise, it would be classified as a contribution, which is regulated and limited, whereas, as an expenditure, it is not.  Despite that, It is widely believed by most people knowledgeable about campaign finance (other than the conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court) that when hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars are at stake, the right hand knows exactly what the left hand is doing

At first glance, it is certainly not surprising that the two Democratic candidates for CD3 who amassed by far the most money in the race according to data reported on  open secrets.org, Ms. Leger and Valerie Plame, were the only ones not to sign the American Promise Candidate and Elected Official Pledge (the AP Pledge) when we asked them to do so.. Perhaps it may have something to do with the fact that they most benefited from the current system which allows vast amounts of Big Money and Dark Money to flood into our elections to the clear detriment of the other candidates. They placed first and second, respectively, far ahead of the rest of the pack.

But the AP Pledge does NOT ask the signer to say, “I won’t take Big Money contributions” or “I won’t benefit from Dark Money”. It only says that if he or she wins, he or she intends to use his or her office to advance a constitutional amendment (no particular language for the amendment is locked) to reform campaign finance to fix the problem of too much money in political campaigns!  Many candidates have said that they don’t like to have spend 40 to 60% of their time begging for large contributions and would like the system to change. So why won’t  more candidates agree to sign the pledge? Objectively, it would appear they would want to sign it. According to the results across the state, even in CD2, 37%-43% of New Mexico voters would be “much more likely to support a candidate that strongly pushes for campaign finance reform,” while only 2-3% would be “much more likely to oppose a candidate that strongly pushes for campaign finance reform”. See https://www.commoncause.org/new-mexico/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2019/01/Final-CC_PUBOP_Tracked.pdf.

Big Money from wealthy persons, large corporations and special interests and Dark Money from whom nobody knows are plagues on our democracy. Virtually given a carte blanche to spend unlimited amounts by the U.S. Supreme Court in such cases as Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and Citizens United v. FEC (2010) and lower court cases like SpeechNOW.org v. FEC. (2010) that struck down massive pieces of campaign finance laws, big powerful movers behind the scenes have been allowed to influence our elections from the shadows and  more than ever before.

Money in elections has to be responsibly regulated again in order to return the power of government to the people. The only way that can happen is if there is a constitutional amendment that overrules the U.S. Supreme Court’s disastrous opinions that have allowed it to happen. That is not going to happen if we don’t convince our representatives in Congress that we really want them to take that step. Otherwise, they won’t. Why are so many elected officials and incumbent candidates reluctant to sign the AP It’s not difficult to figure out. They are the beneficiaries of the current, corrupt system! That’s how most of them got where they are.  The great roadblock to meaningful campaign finance reform is the fact that a campaign finance system that works well for those in power but not for the people!

That’s why RepresentUs New Mexico (formerly NMMOP) will continue to work hard to make our political representatives realize that the people earnestly want them to enact a constitutional amendment to brake up the stranglehold of Big Money and Dark Money upon our representative democracy.

John House
President of RepresentUs New Mexico