DU panel tackles complex campaign finance reform issue

Regulation of campaign donations and spending proves thorny issue even for election lawyers
The Colorado Statesman

A University of Denver panel that is attempting to provide recommendations for campaign finance reform heard from Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, prominent Democratic election law attorney Mark Grueskin and Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call on Wednesday. The four-hour circuitous presentation by the three experts left panel members walking away shaking their heads at the overwhelmingly complex system that regulates campaign donations and spending.

“I was just struck by the complexity of it,” lamented Dr. Jim Griesemer, chairman of the nonpartisan panel and director of the DU Strategic Issues Program, which organized the blue ribbon committee. “Not only do you have different kinds of actors — candidates, parties and independent — but you also have different levels, so it’s like three-dimensional chess.”

The 19-member panel’s task is to determine whether there should be campaign finance regulations, and if so, what form those regulations should take. Members represent leaders in business, health services, education, public advocacy and government. Participants on Wednesday included Joe Blake, former chancellor of the Colorado State University System and former chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Dick Robinson, chief executive of Robinson Dairy, attorney John Moye, a partner with Moye White, LLP, and Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, to name a few.

The panel members asked a handful of technical questions during the presentation, but offered no perspectives. A report with recommendations will be issued by next summer. The committee has at least another three meetings before it issues its report. Future presenters are expected to include former U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar, D-Penn., who currently serves as president of progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, to name a few.

The issue of campaign finance has always been a thorny one, but it has intensified following the 2012 election cycle. Independent political interest groups spent more than $1 billion over the course of the election, which has turned the stomachs of many Americans. The landmark 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has helped to fuel much of the spending. The high court ruled in favor of unlimited spending by corporations and unions.

Colorado has been relatively progressive in terms of campaign finance regulations. Voters this November backed Amendment 65, which calls on the Colorado congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would effectively overturn Citizens United and close the floodgates.

Prior to that, there was Amendment 54 in 2008, which prohibited certain government contract holders from making political donations. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned that effort. In 2002, voters backed Amendment 27, which banned direct corporate or union expenditures to campaigns for state office. But ­ effectively rendered that initiative unconstitutional. And in 1996, voters backed Amendment 15, which established the state’s Campaign Finance Act. The law limits contributions for state offices. The courts, however, ruled parts of the law to be unconstitutional.

The current limit is $200 for persons and political committees to donate to candidates, with the exception of races for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer, which is $550. Limits apply separately to both the primary and general election.

Both Gessler and Grueskin — who usually end up on opposite sides of the campaign finance fence — agreed that the limitations are causing more trouble than good.

“We have such small dollar limits that the candidates spend a huge inordinate amount of time chasing money because they have to fill an ocean one teaspoon full at a time,” stated Gessler, a former elections law attorney.
The conservative secretary of state pointed out that in order to remain competitive, a candidate typically needs to raise $100,000 for a district seat. He added that the result is less time spent on the issues and more time asking for money.

Grueskin backed that theory, stating, “The secretary is right that the $200 limit is just too small. I’m not suggesting that you go to $1,000, or anything else. I’m not sure that I have a number. But I can tell you that if his construct of $100,000… is accurate, just doubling the existing limits would allow for candidates to raise a couple-hundred thousand dollars …”

For both of them, the issue comes down to a matter of speech. Grueskin subscribes to the opinion put forth by Chief Justice John Roberts: “Where the First Amendment is implicated, the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor.”

“When you have a doubt, we choose speech, particularly, we choose political speech. And so, to the extent that the question about campaign finance regulation is raised, this is the framework in which I believe you should consider it,” Grueskin told the panel.

“When you try and stop speech; when you try and limit speech; when you say that there are certain groups that cannot engage in political thought, what you’re going to have is water going around these rocks,” he added, suggesting that there is no way to stop campaign contributions, so the flow will always find a way through.

Gessler surmised that while the spending may seem excessive, it represents a fundamental right to speech. He joked that he has been happy to get back to watching commercials about beer, cars and Viagra following the election. But he also highlighted the seriousness of allowing big spending on advertising in elections in order to advance messaging.

“The First Amendment was designed to protect unpopular speech,” declared Gessler. “That’s what it’s there for. You don’t need a First Amendment to protect popular speech. You need a First Amendment to protect unpopular speech. And if you don’t like the TV ads, that’s the price we pay as a free society, because people can say things that you don’t like.”

The party perspective

For his part, Call spoke of how campaign finance laws make it difficult for political parties to back candidates of their choosing.

Per each election cycle in Colorado, political parties are allowed to contribute $569,530 for governor and lieutenant governor; $113,905 for secretary of state, attorney general and state treasurer; $20,500 for state senate; and $14,805 for all remaining races.

“If you think about some of our competitive races for the state legislature — and if the principle purpose of a party organization is to build majorities — if we can only contribute to and support… the election of a candidate in a competitive state Senate race that might be in terms of spending close to a half-million dollars, or even a million dollars or more, and the party committee is only contributing $20,000 towards that, you can see that the party is very, very hamstrung in our ability to help support candidates to try and build our majorities,” Call explained to the panel.

The GOP leader was candid in explaining the purpose of elections and fundraising, stating, “Let’s not kid ourselves, elections and politics are about power and which party and which ideology has the majority in terms of governance.”

He attempted to calm concerns over money buying elections by pointing to the purpose of political parties, which he said is to advance an ideology. Call — who in addition to his role as chairman of the Colorado Republican Party is also an attorney with Denver-based Hale Westfall, LLP — said many voters are uninformed when they head to the polls, and use party affiliation as a guide.

“In many ways, the party committee plays a vocal role in voter education because… quite rarely does a voter have a full understanding,” said Call. “But if we know the [candidate] is a Republican, we have a pretty good sense of the kinds of policies that [the candidate] … will enact.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com