Dark Money Behind Campaign Finance Reform Push

Reformers see campaign finance regulations as means to thwart political opposition

Legal professor Lawrence Lessig / AP
July 7, 2014

A liberal campaign finance reformer with ties to one of the left’s leading dark money outfits succeeded last week in raising $5 million to elect politicians who will pledge to reduce the influence of money in the American political process.

While Lawrence Lessig and others work to present the effort of his group, Mayday PAC, as bipartisan and politically neutral, Lessig’s most recent efforts as well as his past work with leading liberal activists and financiers suggest a more esoteric agenda.

Lessig pitched wealthy donors in the tech community last week on the utility of restricting corporate political speech, saying their political agenda would be much easier to advance if opposing forces were restricted from influencing the political process.

"We have no protection for network neutrality because of the enormous influence of cable companies’ money in the political system," he told TechCrunch. "If NN is your issue, then this is why you should see that politic$ is your issue too."

Net neutrality, the concept that internet service providers must provide the same level of bandwidth for all types of content, is a controversial issue. Many technology companies and Silicon Valley venture capitalists—a number of which are financially supporting Mayday—could benefit financially from such measures.

Lessig insists that his group is not simply advancing the financial interests of its donors, the precise practice that he claims to be combatting.

It is "ironic" that Mayday is spending millions to elect politicians in an effort to get money out of politics, according to the group’s website. "Embrace the irony."

Mayday has raised more than $7 million for its electoral efforts, according to the website.

Lessig has been explicit about the ideological nature of his campaign finance reform position. Liberal political ideas would prevail, he insists, but for the ability of their detractors to spend money opposing those ideas.

Lessig took a similar tack with respect to climate energy policy. Environmentalists, Lessig said in 2012, spent "hundreds of millions of dollars … to get global warming legislation, and they got nothing."

"If money didn’t buy results in Washington," he said, environmentalists would have been able to achieve their goals by injecting substantially less money into the political process.

"They begin to think, jeez, one-tenth, you know, one-twentieth of what we actually deployed would have been enough to educate … lobby, uh, policymakers to get them to the right position," he added.

That attitude towards campaign finance reform as a means to advance a left-of-center agenda is seemingly at odds with efforts by Lessig and others to present reform effort as politically and ideologically neutral.

Lessig is an adviser to the Fund for the Republic (FFR), a campaign finance reform outfit that has worked in recent years to couch its agenda in bipartisan terms and to attempt to court conservative and Republican supporters.

Lessig signed on in 2011, when United Republic, then FFR’s 501(c)(4) arm, acquired Rootstrikers, an activist group that at the time boasted roughly 275,000 members.

Over the next few years, FFR worked to promote its message among conservatives. It hired a "Republican chief investment officer" and a "Republican strategist" in an effort "to increase bipartisan work."

Those hires were noted prominently in promotional materials provided this year to members of the Democracy Alliance, a shadowy left-wing dark money outfit that works to elect Democratic candidates and promote a liberal policy agenda.

The Democracy Alliance network plans to spend $374 million advancing liberal political and policy efforts during the 2014 election cycle, even as it supports groups, such as FFR, that decry the corrosive influence of money in politics.

"We value those DA members who support us, as we do many other donors—both foundations and individuals—who believe that rebalancing American democracy is everyone's cause (not just for liberals)," said FFR spokeswoman Leigh Beasley in an emailed statement.

Beasley noted that FFR goes "above and beyond what most organizations do to disclose our (c)3 and (c)4 donors. Per our disclosure policy, we provide the names of any donor who gives $250 or more upon request."

Beasley also noted that the Alliance does not, as an organization, donate money to FFR. It is not institutionally responsible for donations to any of its supported organizations.

Instead, the Alliance connects effective liberal organizations with high dollar donors, who then contribute directly to those organizations. To the extent that those organizations disclose their donors – and many do not – the Democracy Alliance’s name never appears as part of the transaction.

That means that many hoped-for campaign finance regulations, such as spending restrictions and disclosure requirements on 501(c)(4) groups, would not directly affect the Alliance’s transparency or operations.

The Democracy Alliance materials detail FFR’s efforts to "engage 25 conservatives identified as being pro-[campaign finance] reform to act as advisory committee for establishment of Conservative Lighthouse for Reform," a project designed to make a right-of-center case for such reforms.

However, the Democracy Alliance document, designed to promote FFR and 20 other DA-supported organizations to its ranks of high-dollar liberal donors, portrays the group as explicitly advancing a liberal ideological agenda, notwithstanding its conservative outreach efforts.

"Given the Right’s limitless ability to pour money into elections and influence policy, FFR and [its 501(c)(4) arm] work to engage more donors and organizations in the money in politics fight is critical," Democracy Alliance noted.

According to the DA documents, 14 Alliance "partners" provided $1.39 million in financing for FFR and its sister organization last year. The Alliance hopes to increase that support to $1.6 million this year, which would amount to more than a third of its projected budget.

The Republican outreach described in the DA documents may also be less bipartisan than it appears. They tout Kahlil Byrd, FFR’s new CIO, as a Republican, but his resume suggests more malleable political allegiances.

Byrd was previously the communications director for Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick’s gubernatorial campaign, according to his LinkedIn page. After Patrick was elected Byrd served as his director of appointments.