The Politics We Don’t See Matter as Much as Those We Do

Party strategists pay a lot of attention to redrawing district maps — and hope you won’t bother to think about it.

by Thomas B. Edsall

Reprinted from The New York Times, August 12, 2020 edition.

Some of the most important developments in politics do not happen every election cycle, but every ten years, when politicians scrap the old battleground map and struggle to replace it with a new one more favorable to their interests.

Steven Hill, a former fellow at New America, described how this works in his still pertinent 2003 book “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics.”

“Beginning in early 2001, a great tragedy occurred in American politics,” Hill wrote. As a result of that tragedy, “most voters had their vote rendered nearly meaningless, almost as if it had been stolen from them” as “hallowed notions such as ‘no taxation without representation’ and ‘one person, one vote’ have been drained of their vitality, reduced to empty slogans.”

Hill was referring to “the process of redistricting” that he argued was legalized “theft” engaged in by “the two major political parties, their incumbents, and their consultants,” which Hill said was “part of the everyday give-and-take (mostly take) of America’s winner-take-all politics.”

Hill first made his argument at a time when both parties were still colluding in developing new districts designed to protect incumbents, Republicans and Democrats alike. Since then, the parties have abandoned any semblance of bipartisanship and are now fully engaged in an all-out battle for control of state legislatures.

A basic objective remains the same, however: to effectively disenfranchise key segments of the electorate.

As Devin Caughey, a political scientist at M.I.T. and the lead author of “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Political Process,” explained in an email:

The goal of partisan gerrymandering is to maximize one party’s seat share given their vote share. The means to this end is drawing districts that waste as many votes for the opposing party as possible, while wasting as few votes as possible for one’s own party.

In addition to creating wasted votes — thus undermining a key principle of democracy — an additional consequence of gerrymandering is what Nicholas Stephanopoulos of Harvard Law School calls “representational distortion”: the adoption of policies that do not have majority support in the electorate.

Stephanopoulos, the author of the 2018 paper “The Causes and Consequences of Gerrymandering,” described “one glaring example,” in an email:

Democrats got more votes than Republicans in the 2012 and 2018 Wisconsin state legislative elections. So in a world without gerrymandering, Democrats would have been able to block all kinds of conservative policies between 2012 and 2014, including environmental deregulation, tax cuts, abortion restrictions, gun deregulation, etc.

Instead, Republican majorities in both branches of the Wisconsin legislature enacted all of those policies, as well as a package of anti-union measures.

In the 2018 election, Democrats won 53 percent of all votes cast in the Wisconsin State Assembly contests, but won 36 percent of the State Assembly seats.

In his paper, Stephanopoulos wrote:

What is undeniably a democratic malfunction, though, is representation that does not reflect the ideological preferences of the electorate — representation that is much more liberal or much more conservative than voters actually want.

His conclusion?

Single-party control of redistricting fosters partisan unfairness more than any other variable, and that such unfairness translates directly into ideologically distorted representation.

Caughey is also concerned about gerrymandering because it leads to a denial of political representation of the majority electorate:

Our basic point about distortion of representation is that partisan gerrymandering pulls state policies in the ideological direction of the party that controls redistricting. This policy effect follows from two facts: (1) gerrymandering allows one party to capture more seats than it would otherwise control, and (2) the occupants of the extra seats vote very differently from the members of the opposite party who would otherwise have occupied those seats.

Since the party in power can “skew policies toward its preferences,” Caughey continues, “the policy effects of additional seats are greatest when party control hangs in the balance. Thus, gerrymandering is most consequential when it gives one party a majority of seats when it would otherwise have a minority.”

Richard Pildes, a law professor at N.Y.U. and an outspoken critic of distorted legislative districts, wrote in an email:

Gerrymandering is antithetical to democracy; politicians should have to compete for popular support under neutral, fair rules of engagement — rather than being able to manipulate the playing field to entrench themselves and their allies in power.

Pildes argues that gerrymandering is

about as pure an example as we have of insiders rigging the system for their own benefit. It also poisons state legislatures, when the decade begins with one party ramming down the throat of the other a manipulative map that affects the state for a decade.

The fight to control redistricting next year is taking place in relatively low visibility races for legislative seats in states ranging from Kansas to Texas to Minnesota.

The Princeton Election Consortium has produced a detailed analysis of those elections in six states, Texas, Minnesota, Connecticut, Kansas, Florida and North Carolina. The consortium, which is headed by Sam Wang, a professor of neuroscience and microbiology at Princeton, identifies the key “races where voters have the most leverage to prevent partisan gerrymandering in 2021. A few hundred voters mobilized in the right districts could bring bipartisan control of redistricting to a state, leading to fairer districts for a decade.”

The consortium found, for example, that a cluster of eight Kansas state house districts in Johnson County, an affluent suburb of Kansas City, offers key opportunities for Democratic voters and donors to shift the balance of power statewide.

In a reflection of partisan enthusiasm, in 2019, the first full year of the current election cycle, Johnson County Democrats outraisedJohnson County Republicans $108,314 to $58,480.

In North Carolina, the consortium identified three districts in the Highpoint-Greensboro-Winston Salem region as strong targets for Democrats seeking to wrest control of the North Carolina house.

Gerrymandering battlegrounds vary widely, both in terms of the parties’ goals and strategies.

In Kansas, for example, where Republicans overwhelmingly dominate both branches of the legislature, the Democratic goal is to pick up just one more seat in the Kansas House. That would give the party enough votes to block a Republican gerrymander by preventing the Republican majority from overriding a veto by the Democratic governor of a Republican redistricting plan. In other words, without veto-proof majorities in both branches, Republicans would be forced to work with Democrats in drawing both legislative and congressional district lines.

In Minnesota, the Democratic goal is to gain a State Senate majority by winning at least two additional seats. If successful, Democrats would then have complete control over redistricting — a so-called trifecta — the governor, the State Senate and the state House, with Republicans left powerless.

Republicans currently have trifectas in 21 states, Democrats in 15 — the remaining states have divided government. Fourteen states, including California, Ohio and Michigan, have shifted control over redistricting from the state legislature to an independent commission. Eleven others use independent commissions either to advise legislatures or to step in when no agreement can be reached. Republicans control both branches of the legislature in 29 states to the Democrats 19, with the only split in Minnesota. (Nebraska’s state government is unicameral.)

For partisans engaged in state legislative battles, anti-democratic concerns over gerrymandering fall on largely deaf ears — these activists are forced by the rules of the game to compete in redistricting contests because the stakes are so high.

Take the issue of voting rights and the sustained efforts by Republicans to suppress turnout, especially among pro-Democratic minorities.

Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, wrote by email:

The trend at the Supreme Court and in the lower courts, increasingly stacked with Trump appointees, is a pullback on federal protection of voting rights. That means that many voting rights struggles will begin and end with what state legislatures — and in some cases state supreme courts applying state constitutions — say the rules will be.
Fredrick Cornelius Harris, a professor of political science and director of the Center on African-American Politics and Society at Columbia, warned that current developments — the likely census undercount of minorities and the poor and the Trump administration’s discouragement of immigrants from filling out census forms, together with the Covid-19 pandemic — will weaken the political leverage of minorities post-2021 redistricting.

These factors, Harris wrote by email, “could impact the reapportionment of seats in state legislatures,” before adding that

A weakened voting rights act — this will be the first reapportionment since Shelby County vs. Holder — could have an impact on the number of majority-minority districts in the South. Since Republicans run state houses in the Deep South, there can be a potential loss of seats for Democrats and Black/Latino legislators in some of those states if Republicans choose to do so.

In many of the key states where state legislative contests are fought most intensely, Democrats are generally on offense and Republican on defense. A major factor driving this difference is the continuing suburban animosity toward Trump that is pushing many independents and nominally Republican voters toward the Democratic Party, as the 2018 election demonstrated.

This pattern of Republican vulnerability has proved especially true in Texas, where Democrats are determined to capitalize on the major gains they have made in state and federal contests in the suburbs of Dallas, Houston and other cities.

Robert M. Stein, a political scientist at Rice University who has been closely following contests in Texas where Democrats need to gain nine seats to take control of the state house, wrote me:

The polling I am seeing and expect to see in the next few weeks suggests the Democrats have a better than even chance — 55 percent likelihood — of picking up more than nine seats.
In addition, Stein wrote,

the registration numbers are moving away from the Republicans’ previous 1 million voter advantage. Since 2017, 5 percent more Democrats registered to vote in Texas than Republicans and this advantage appears to be widening since the first of the year. The demographic shift is bearing fruit for Texas Democrats and in a predictable fashion.

In the national fund-raising competition, the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is slightly behind the Republican State Leadership Committee for the period from January 1, 2019 through June 30, 2020, according to I.R.S. records, $28.1 million to $32.8 million.

These figures do not, however, take into account the surge in support of other Democratic groups involved in state legislative contests. The most important of these is the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, which has raised more than $50 million since its founding in 2017. The committee backs Democratic legislative candidates but requires them to support efforts to restrict gerrymandering, including the creation of independent redistricting commissions.

While Democrats are on the offensive, especially in suburban legislative seats across the county, the party is fighting an uphill battle overall.

Charles Nuttycombe, director of CNalysis, an election forecasting firm, assessed the likely outcomes of state legislative races in “The State of the States: The Legislatures,” an essay published at Crystal Ball, the political website run by Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. Nuttycombe’s conclusion is best summarized in the sub-headline: “Don’t expect much overall change even as many chambers are competitive.”

One of the major problems Democrats face is the unexpected resilience of a $30 million 2010 Republican program called Redmap — the Redistricting Majority Project. This exceptionally successful initiative was developed by Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove, who recognized the crucial role of state legislatures in determining the balance of power in Congress.

As Reuters reported, in the 2010 election, the Republican Redmap project netted some 700 state seats, increasing its share of state House and Senate seats by almost 10 percent, from approximately 3200 to over 3900. It took over both legislative chambers in 25 states and won total control of 21 states (legislature and governorship) — the greatest such victory since 1928.

Christopher Warshaw, a political scientist at George Washington University, is a co-author with Devin Caughey and Chris Tausanovitch, a political scientist at U.C.L.A., of “Partisan Gerrymandering and the Political Process,” which I mentioned earlier. Warshaw emailed me about the continued success of Redmap:

It’s really remarkable how extreme and durable some of the gerrymanders from 2011-12 have been. A number of studies have shown that the Republican gerrymanders in places like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were among the most extreme in history. In Congress, these gerrymandered maps probably gained Republicans at least a dozen seats. One study recently estimated that Republicans gained 27 seats in Congress from the 2011 maps.
In the case of Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin, Warshaw pointed out,

Republicans have continued to control the majority of seats year after year in both chambers of the state legislatures. This is despite the fact that Democrats received a majority of the votes in state legislative elections in all three states in 2018. In some of these states, Democrats would probably need to win the popular vote by more than 10 percent to win control of the state legislature. So while I do think that Democrats will win control of a couple more chambers in 2020 if Biden continues to have an 8+ point lead over President Trump, it’s going to be very difficult for Democrats to overcome the Republican gerrymanders in places like Michigan, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

In other words, Democrats may have the wind at their backs this year, but the roadblocks Republicans have constructed over the course of the past decade are quite likely to prove insurmountable, for quite some time, no matter which party takes the White House, no matter how meaningless voters find the ballots they cast and no matter how many American voters are deprived of a voice.

DISCLAIMER: RepresentUs New Mexico (RUNM) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. As such, we work on issues that are nonpartisan on a cross-partisan basis with persons of all political affiliations and ideological perspectives to accomplish our goals. The intent of any reference to a political person or party made by us in this email is to call attention to the statement or action made by such person or party that pertains to one of or more of RUNM’s goals, not to show favor or disfavor to such person or party. Statements made by other persons or sources reproduced here represent the perspective of the writers or publishers and not necessarily that of RUNM.

Our Letter to President Trump | RepresentUs

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If any other President or politician behaved this way, we’d have the same response.

Full page ad published in the New York Times, August 9, 2020

Our letter to
President Trump

This is not partisanship, it’s patriotism. President Trump refused to say that he would accept the results of a free and fair election, then made an unprecedented and unconstitutional move to delay the election. We responded with a full page ad in America’s paper of record, the New York Times.

We are conservatives and progressives who believe democracy is bigger than any president or political party. Make a donation to support our work. Every dollar goes directly to helping pass anti-corruption and pro-democracy laws across America.

Click here to see the full ad.

DISCLAIMER: RepresentUs New Mexico (RUNM) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. As such, we work on issues that are nonpartisan on a cross-partisan basis with persons of all political affiliations and ideological perspectives to accomplish our goals. The intent of any reference to a political person or party made by us in this email is to call attention to the statement or action made by such person or party that pertains to one of or more of RUNM’s goals, not to show favor or disfavor to such person or party. Statements made by other persons or sources reproduced here represent the perspective of the writers or publishers and not necessarily that of RUNM.

Ethics complaint alleges group failed to disclose donors, connection to prominent New Mexico lobbyist

August 7, 2020

Reprinted from New Mexico in Depth

Over the course of May and early June this year, a new group called the “Council for a Competitive New Mexico” (CCNM) spent over $130,000 on a media campaign supporting a group of incumbent state senators, most of whom would go on to lose as part of a progressive wave in June’s Democratic primary.

The media campaign included several negative mailers and automated phone-calls against candidates opposing the incumbents while the public was left in the dark about who organized the group and who funded the media campaign.

Now, an ethics complaint filed this week with the Secretary of State’s office alleges that CCNM broke New Mexico’s election code by not disclosing its donors.

Neri Holguin, campaign manager for two of the candidates who won during the June primary, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, writes that the group may have violated the New Mexico Elections Code by not reporting who paid for the negative advertising and phone calls against those candidates as well as others.

“It was a deliberate attempt to make it as difficult as possible for voters to know who’s behind these hits on our candidates,” said Holguin in an interview. “They knew the rules enough to file as an independent expenditure (IE) and to list their expenditures, and so why not list contributors?”

“Voters need to know that, and we have no way of knowing that right now,” said Holguin.

At the core of Holquin’s complaint is a new state law that triggers certain groups to disclose publicly and quickly who the donors are that paid for their electioneering activities if the costs are larger than a state-prescribed threshold.

Holguin said she believes CCNM was created by a group of people, including prominent New Mexico lobbyist Vanessa Alarid–whom she mentioned by name in the complaint–that have used similar tactics in recent years to influence elections at the local and state level without disclosing publicly who is funding the activities in a timely fashion.

Chevonne Alarid, the president of the nonprofit group, however, said disclosure isn’t necessary until it files its annual report to the Internal Revenue Service. In addition, she and Vanessa Alarid both denied Vanessa’s involvement. An unnamed representative of the Council for a Competitive New Mexico said in an email the group was in compliance with state law.

The disagreement offers a glimpse into an ongoing debate over how to ensure the public knows who is behind negative political messaging at a time when vast amounts of political spending is going undisclosed across the country.

Lack of disclosure

CCNM’s media campaign during the primary included a mixture of negative ads targeting challengers and positive ads supporting the incumbents they opposed. A search of the Secretary of State’s independent expenditure portal shows that while the group did report its expenditures, it didn’t disclose the donors behind the effort, leaving the public in the dark about the interests of those behind the media campaign.

An image of one CCNM report on the searchable state portal, with no donors listed.
The group filed registration documents on March 11 with the Secretary of State listing three individuals associated with the organization: Chevonne Alarid, Adam Silverman, and Kelli Monnheimer. The group hired Lincoln Strategy Group, an Arizona-based campaign firm aligned with the Republican Party. Nathan Sproul, founder of the group, previously served as the Executive Director of the Arizona Republican Party.

But otherwise, there is little information about the group on its website or elsewhere, about who is responsible for or funding its electioneering activities.

“We must actively explore continued economic diversification, drive increased job growth and demand reforms to our tax structure,” reads the website, alongside references to New Mexico’s oil and gas sector and “key policy leaders” who have “wisely fought for fiscal discipline.”

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and generally regarded as a fiscal conservative, was defeated by progressive challenger Neomi Martinez-Parra in June.

The Council for a Competitive New Mexico campaigned in favor of Smith and Democratic incumbents Richard C. Martinez, Gabriel Ramos, Joseph Cervantes, and Clemente Sanchez.

Simultaneously, the group spent money, according to its reports, on negative attacks against those hoping to unseat Smith, Martinez, Ramos and Sanchez — Martinez-Parra, Leo Jaramillo, Siah Correa Hemphill and Pam Cordova, respectively. The group also ran negative automatic phone calls to voters, or “robo-calls”, with one call claiming that “outside groups dedicated to tearing down other Democrats,” were supporting Correa Hemphill against her opponent, Sen. Gabriel Ramos.

The group flooded mailboxes with mailers. For instance, in May, CCNM sent negative mailers to voters comparing Martinez-Parra to President Donald Trump.

Other mailers were more positive, casting incumbent Democratic state senators as advocates for local businesses and families.

A positive mailer that was mailed to voters by CCNM. Image from Holguin ethics complaint..
All told, the group spent roughly $134,000 on its campaign.

Asked numerous times via phone and email, representatives of the Council for a Competitive New Mexico declined to disclose who had funded the campaign.

“As a newly formed 501c(4), we will follow all applicable laws, public disclosure requirements and filing timelines, as outlined by the Internal Revenue Service and the Secretary of State, as applicable,” wrote a representative of the organization in an unsigned email.

Reached by phone, Chevonne Alarid, who is registered as the President for the organization, said she didn’t have much information about the group.

“I am titled the President, but I likely don’t have the information that you’re requesting,” she said on Friday. She later referred New Mexico In Depth to Adam Silverman, secretary of the group, for further information.

Silverman, who is the Vice President of the Albuquerque-area real estate developer Geltmore, LLC, declined to talk on the phone for this story, instead redirecting inquiries to an email account set up by the organization.

“The Council for a Competitive New Mexico has complied with the requirements of NMAC 1.10.13.11(C) in its filings,” the group subsequently stated in an unsigned email from that account.

Chevonne Alarid said the group would file an annual report required of nonprofits. “It’s an allegation that would likely have no basis,” she said of the ethics complaint.

While Alarid was referring to federal IRS rules governing disclosure by 501(c)4 organizations, the ethics complaint alleges the group violated state election laws. Those laws require groups not registered with the state as political action committees that spend over a certain amount of money to influence elections to disclose their expenditures and donors within days of the activity.

Citing the state laws, the ethics complaint emphasizes that the nonprofit group’s spending falls under the state’s definition of such independent expenditures, and that because the spending exceeded $3,000, donor disclosure is required.

“Over $100,000 got spent on these elections, very close to the election, and in ways that are not easy for voters or campaigns to know who was behind them,” said Holguin.

Potential penalties named by the complaint include a civil penalty of up to $20,000– $1,000 per violation– as well as a misdemeanor if it can be shown that the group “knowingly and willfully” violated New Mexico’s election code.

“The Secretary of State takes allegations such as these very seriously and all complaints received by our Office go through an internal process to determine if a violation has occurred,” wrote spokesman Alex Curtas in an email. “We will review the allegations, pull any internal documentation or reports we may have and do a thorough analysis.”

Curtas said that if the complaint required further investigation, the Secretary of State will make a referral to the State Ethics Commission.

Special Interests

In her ethics complaint, Holguin wrote that she believed Vanessa Alarid is involved with CCNM. In a text message, Holguin pointed to close connections Alarid has with those running the CCNM group as well as similar groups that ran negative media campaigns in two other recent elections.

“Vanessa Alarid is a lobbyist who goes to great lengths to protect the interests of her corporate clients, namely the real estate conglomerate Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, the owners of the controversial Santolina development,” Holguin said in the text message. “It seems she is often separated by one degree to PACs or IEs (independent expenditure) that go aggressively after candidates that oppose Santolina’s wishes.”

A prominent New Mexico lobbyist, Vanessa Alarid has long advocated for development interests in Albuquerque. Currently she is a registered lobbyist with the state as a lobbyist for both Garrett and Winrock Partners, LLC. She denied her involvement in CCNM in a text message, and declined to comment further.

Vanessa Alarid and others in conversation at the conclusion of a presentation to the House Transportation, Public Works, and Capital Improvements committee in 2018 about proposed funding for Paseo del Volcan on the Albuquerque west side. Image: Danielle Prokop.
In the June primary and elections in 2016 and 2017 that Holguin referenced, new groups with generic, innocuous names abruptly appear near the end of an election period and run large negative media campaigns, and for a period of time the public is left in the dark about the interests behind the ads.

As New Mexico in Depth reported in 2016, a political action committee called “New Mexicans for New Mexico” spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on billboards, canvassing, mailers and robocalls to boost then-Bernalillo County Commission candidates Steven Michael Quezada and Robert Chavez while criticizing Adrian Pedroza.

Most of that money came from Western Albuquerque Land Holdings and its asset manager, Jeffrey Garrett, but the public didn’t know that until final disclosure reports were filed a month after the election. And a lobbying report she filed more than three months after the election clarified Vanessa Alarid donated the bulk of the money to New Mexicans for New Mexico on behalf of Garrett Development Corporation.

Pedroza, an opponent of the controversial Santolina development, was ultimately defeated by Quezada.

The group’s treasurer, Donna Madrid-Taylor, told New Mexico In Depth in 2016 that the group had “accomplished what we were setting out to do” and was shuttered.

In 2017, a group called Make Albuquerque Safe began running negative TV ads and prominent billboards against Tim Keller, then a candidate for Albuquerque mayor. New Mexico in Depth reported in 2017 that Garrett Development Corporation contributed half of the $60,000 spent by the group. At that time, Vanessa Alarid was registered with both the City of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico as a lobbyist for Garrett.

The group ran the ads about a week before campaign disclosure statements were due, and over the course of that week did not provide any information about who was behind the group, leaving the public in the dark initially.

Holguin has found herself on the opposite side of those efforts. A longtime Democratic campaign manager, she headed up an independent group called ABQ Forward Together that supported Tim Keller in the 2017 Albuquerque mayoral election. In 2016, Holguin was the campaign manager for Pedroza, Quezada’s primary opponent for a seat on the county commission.

Beyond her role as a lobbyist for Garrett, and in the case of the 2016 election, donating money to a committee on his behalf, Vanessa Alarid had other connections to the groups.

Madrid-Taylor, listed as the treasurer for both Make Albuquerque Safe and New Mexicans for New Mexico, worked at the time as a paralegal in the law offices of Jason Alarid, Vanessa Alarid’s first cousin (In a brief phone call Wednesday, Madrid-Taylor emphasized that she is no longer involved with the groups and now works solely as a realtor).

Alarid has similar family connections to the Council for a Competitive New Mexico.

The ethics complaint filed this week states that Vanessa Alarid is Chevonne Alarid’s sister-in-law.

In a text message, Vanessa Alarid clarified her relationship with Chevonne and denied any involvement in CCNM.

“She married my cousin and I know absolutely nothing about the CCNM. Neverheard [sic] about it,” she wrote. That cousin is Jason Alarid, who shares a downtown Albuquerque office space with his wife Chevonne’s own consulting firm, CLA Consulting.

Jason Alarid did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Chevonne denied Vanessa’s involvement in the group, as well.

Holguin said she hopes an investigation by the Secretary of State will shed light on who funded the political advertising. As for Alarid’s denial, she seemed skeptical. “The treasurers or listed agents for several PACs have been relatives or friends of relatives of Alarid’s,” she said. “Is it a coincidence? Maybe. But probably not.”

DISCLAIMER: RepresentUs New Mexico (RUNM) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. As such, we work on issues that are nonpartisan on a cross-partisan basis with persons of all political affiliations and ideological perspectives to accomplish our goals. The intent of any reference to a political person or party made by us in this email is to call attention to the statement or action made by such person or party that pertains to one of or more of RUNM’s goals, not to show favor or disfavor to such person or party. Statements made by other persons or sources reproduced here represent the perspective of the writers or publishers and not necessarily that of RUNM.

What We Are Currently Doing About Government Corruption

By John House

RepresentUs New Mexico is a member of the Declaration for American Democracy (DFAD), a national coalition of more than 150 national, state and local member organizations working on various aspects of democracy reform. DAFD engages in a variety of activities, including lobbying our members of Congress in Washington, D.C., attending and speaking at congressional hearings, letter writing campaigns, phone banking on federal, state and local issues and joint letters that individual coalition member organizations may choose to joint sign. Below is the latest coalition letter pertaining “closing the revolving door” between industry professionals and government administrative positions.

SIGN-ON LETTER: To Rebuild Public Trust, Close the Revolving Door

We, the undersigned organizations, call on the winner of the next presidential election to commit not to appoint any individual to a senior policy role in an agency or department with authority over any industry in which that individual held a senior position or served in an advisory capacity within the last five years. We also urge that, if applicable, such individuals be excluded from positions with jurisdiction over personnel matters during the transition.

Trust is a fundamental precondition for effective governance. Yet, Americans’ trust in their government — already frighteningly low prior to Donald Trump’s rise to power — has fallen even further since his inauguration. This should hardly come as a surprise. Throughout the last four years, the public has been subjected to a never-ending parade of conflicted appointees who have enthusiastically set about rolling back the regulations that once restrained their former (and likely future) employers’ most destructive impulses. While corporate interests benefit from this regime, the American public suffers.

The next president must treat this trust deficit like the crisis it is. This moment calls for bold commitments to build an administration that is devoid of serious conflicts of interest and unequivocally committed to advancing the public interest above all else.

Trump did not write the current playbook, even as he has pushed it to new extremes. Steven Mnuchin is, after all, far from the first Treasury Secretary to hail from Goldman Sachs.

Instead of being treated with the care they deserve, appointive positions of public trust have most often been used as political bargaining chips, as rewards for particularly prolific fundraisers, or as if they were reserved for representatives of certain regulated business sectors. As a result, the upper echelons of the executive branch have more often been filled with corporate insiders, many of whom are only months removed from lucrative positions in the industries they are subsequently tasked with regulating (and, indeed, only a few years from a return to those same profitable posts), than with individuals who are unimpeachably committed to advancing the public interest.

The consequence of this practice is that the interests of elites and industry are over-represented in Washington. Ordinary Americans understandably feel they lack a seat at the table. In an administration dominated by revolving door appointees, policies challenging powerful interests face a harder road to enactment, and government priorities tend towards those of well-connected elites. Adherence to this status quo has contributed to the perception that all politicians, no matter their party, are corrupt and actively working to uphold a system that is rigged against regular people.

There should no longer be any dispute: this is a failed model. We need a new vision for executive branch leadership, one that takes building and maintaining public trust as a central imperative. Whichever candidate wins the presidential election this fall must overcome their party’s recent past and build public trust through their choice of appointees. There should be no room for doubt that their selections serve no interest but the public’s.

That must start with the candidate’s choice of stewards for the presidential transition. Too often, the teams crafting incoming administrations have been stacked with figures who work for corporate interests, undermining the frameworks that make way for collective prosperity. Unsurprisingly, the resultant administrations overwhelmingly reflect this inherent conflict of interest.

Past administrations have relied on compliance and mitigation regimes to manage these conflicts of interest, producing a web of disclosures, ethics agreements, and recusals. Even when perfectly applied, these strategies leave gaping loopholes that allow former members of industry to materially advance the interests of former and future employers. While these scenarios might not legally qualify as conflicts of interest under our overly lenient laws, the public is not fooled by the supposed propriety of these relationships.

The next president must, therefore, move from appointing officials who must manage their conflicts of interest to elevating conflict free individuals into senior roles in their transition and in their administration. As such, we call upon the winner of the next presidential election to commit not to appoint any individual into a senior policy role with responsibility over an industry in which, within the last five years, they held a senior position or from which they were compensated in a consulting or advisory capacity.

John House is a retired attorney from Los Angeles, CA who has made his home in Santa Fe since 2007. He is President of RepresentUs New Mexico.

Disclosing and Limiting Political Contributions and Expenditures by Businesses

By David Burling


Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Several advocacy groups are seeking to persuade companies of all sizes to limit their political contributions and disclose their political expenditures. Of these, some are urging these companies to adopt shareholder resolutions supporting these positions. There is even a rating system for governance of major corporations that includes, as one factor, how they handle political contributions. For example, The Center for Political Accountability publishes an annual report called the CPA-Zicklin Index, which includes that information. It is part of a coalition that since 2003 has pushed for each company to develop and disclose guidelines on political contributions directly and through trade associations and other tax-exempt organizations used for political purposes. Part of the requested disclosure includes the identities of the corporate officers making the decisions and the amounts donated. Other organizations involved in this arena include The Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, and, more recently, American Promise, one of the organizations RUNM works closely with.

American Promise has organized a group to create a well-defined set of resolutions for corporations to adopt, including such fundamental goals as improving the wellbeing of the community, the workers and shareholders over the long term and no longer making profitability the sole purpose of the corporation’s existence. American Promise calls this its Corporate Statement Project.

American Promise also promotes an initiative to get business professionals to sign an Individual Statement of Principles in support of these broader and more inclusive corporate goals. These principles would include commitments to full disclosure of political contributions and expenditures. They would also commit the companies to support a well-functioning and representative government.

Similarly, the Shareholder Commons is another organization involved with American Promise on this project and working on its own set of “guardrails” for corporations to adopt, which includes support for a constitutional amendment to overturn the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision, which opened the door to “dark money” donations – that is, donations from certain political action committees that do not have to be disclosed.

These efforts will probably prove challenging, and many of them will probably be directed at large shareholder groups such as pension funds and mutual fund companies. Unfortunately, as the New York  Times recently disclosed (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/21/business/dealbook/corporate-political-donations.html), some companies often profess values that are then undercut by contributions to parties and candidates who don’t support those values.

The next step is to develop and implement guidelines acceptable to corporations that will create a more socially beneficial outcome while helping their corporate bottom line.

David Burling is a retired lawyer and a member of RepresentUs New Mexico. He lives in Lamy, New Mexico.