The conspicuous role taken in this yearís election by a previously inconspicuous woman from Burlington shines a light on the way that unregulated campaign finance has changed American politics.
Lenore Broughton, a 74-year-old heiress whose grandfather was chairman of the board of Montgomery Ward & Company, has been active in politics before. But this year she has channeled her money into Vermont politics at an unprecedented level. She is the source of the money for Vermontís first super PAC, called Vermonters First, which is the kind of organization that has proliferated around the country following the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Super PACs are organizations unaffiliated with specific candidates or parties that now have the freedom to spend unlimited amounts of money to express the political views of their sponsors. Vermonters First, which has one employee, has initiated advertising campaigns for Republicans and independents in Vermont, notably the GOP candidates for treasurer and auditor, Wendy Wilton and Vincent Illuzzi, respectively. As of the last reporting period she had spent $700,000 too boost the candidacies of Wilton and Illuzzi.
That is an unprecedented sum for those races. According to the website of Broughtonís super PAC, her aim is to combat single-payer health care and one-party rule in the state.
There are those who accuse Broughton of trying to buy the elections. On the other side, the Supreme Court has concluded that all citizens have a free speech right to involve themselves in the electoral process and that the expenditure of money was merely a way of amplifying or disseminating oneís speech. The courtís Citizens United ruling held that preventing Broughton from buying advertising to express her views would violate her constitutional rights.
Certainly, liberals are not powerless to mount a counterattack against Broughton or other conservatives, and they have done so. The question posed by the new era of big-money politics is whether it is good for the democracy that our elections have become contests of competing millionaires.
The Republican primary for president put on display a bizarre competition of business titans who had selected favorite candidates and proceeded to funnel millions into super PACs to keep their favorites alive. After Newt Gingrich stumbled, a billionaire patron ran to his rescue and propped him up for a time. Romney had his own billionaires, one of whom he took in tow on a trip to Israel, a fact to which President Obama alluded during the last debate.
The alternative view is that money is not speech; it is property. The purchase of political ads on TV is commerce that may be regulated in order to preserve the integrity of the electoral process. Lenore Broughton has the right to write letters to the editor, stuff envelopes, make speeches, organize candidate coffees and otherwise exercise her free speech. But allowing her to channel her inherited wealth into the process for the benefit of one side skews the process. It undermines the confidence of the individual voter that the system is fair and that his or her vote is equal to that of the big spender.
Campaign finance is a difficult issue that has divided liberals. The American Civil Liberties Union, for example, has been wary about imposing limits on free speech in the form of campaign spending limits. Others, such as Supreme Justice Stephen Breyer, argue that competing values are at stake: free speech on one hand and the freedom to participate in a meaningful way in the democratic process.
Broughtonís role in this election has revealed the role she has played in the past. For example, she bankrolled organizations combatting gay marriage in Vermont, and she has played a role supporting conservative causes and candidates nationally.
Itís worth noting that gay marriage succeeded in blunting the effect of her money because it organized people at the grass roots in a committed, unwavering movement. There will always be money in politics, and often it will be used to protect wealth and privilege. That means that serving the peopleís interests will always require committed, unwavering work.
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