SUPER PACS: Next Stop, Philadelphia?

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BY JOE SHAHEELI/ The axiom in the world of politics is “money talks and everything else walks.”

This has been so, both national and statewide, for elections at the federal level. Candidates can control the outcomes with their huge buys on television, thanks to the couch potatoes of America. Increasingly, they have set their sights now on city elections and the local races for state assemblies.

They guarantee the kind of money it takes to produce a blitz campaign needed for a successful campaign. The unlimited, and literally unregulated, money they can spend reduces the significance of the contribution of regular PACS, now representing most local unions, corporations, lobbyists and the pressure groups.

Super PACs emerged in the wake of a US Supreme Court ruling – Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission in January 2010 – which overturned a 63-year-old law prohibiting corporations and unions from using money from their own treasuries to support or oppose candidates for President and Congress. A Super PAC can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and unions and spend unlimited funds to advocate for or against candidates for elected office.

Though Super PACs are not allowed to contribute directly to a campaign or coordinate with the candidate, in reality, many people who control Super PACs have close ties to the candidates they support, and may even share consultants, and as the Committee of 70 comments, “Does anyone really believe ‘coordination’ of some sort doesn’t occur?”

More Super PACs are moving into Philadelphia’s local election cycles as they are reportedly doing in other major cities. Prime target is the Mayor’s office, followed by the city’s state senatorial and legislative seats within its scope of authority. Philadelphia Co. has seven senatorial seats and 28 legislative seats.

Super PACs are very effective even if they don’t contribute to the campaign of the candidate they are supporting. By law, they are not to work with the candidate’s campaign staff on the messages they are producing. What they provide is goodwill messages for their candidate and mud-slinging against the opponent.

Their role in this last national election has made it obvious theirs is the best way to go for a candidate seeking support. According to the Committee of 70, Super PACs poured over $642 million into the 2012 presidential campaign, often by secret donors, raising the specter of Super PACs overpowering future contests – especially in places like Philadelphia where campaign-finance laws limit what candidates can raise on their own.

What is alarming civic groups is those funding the Super PACs can remain hidden, regardless of which party’s candidates they are supporting.

The Committee of 70, in one of its many reports, stated, “Super PACs have to file regular financial-disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission. But they are allowed to accept contributions from tax-exempt 501(c)(4) groups – “social-welfare organizations” that are allowed to spend some of their money on political purposes and do not have to publicly name their donors. So it’s possible – and entirely legal – for many contributors to Super PACs to remain completely anonymous.

“Super PACs may not be able to control the outcome of presidential races, where the candidates can raise billions on their own. But they could easily outspend candidates in smaller contests – especially in states or cities where candidates don’t or can’t raise as much money. Candidates for elected office in Philly have to live under a campaign-finance law that limits donations from individuals to $2,900 per year and from PACs (regular PACs, not Super PACs), partnerships, or sole proprietorships to $11,500 per year.

“Super PAC backing could lift a candidate – Republican or Democrat – out of obscurity into the Mayor’s seat, or at least make her or him a viable contender. Remember Tom Knox? Nutter beat him in the 2007 Democratic mayoral primary, but the then-unknown businessman outpaced three popular elected officials by pouring $11 million of his own money into the campaign.

“A political committee headed by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98’s boss John Dougherty already spent money on ads in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat David Oh in the 2011 City Council at-Large race. But it was successful in easily winning offices for District Councilman Bob Henon and Rep. Ed Neilson. It’s learned how to do that well, making Dougherty a force with which to contend.

“One can probably count on IBEW and other local unions to play a big role in the 2015 Mayor’s race,” the 70 statement continued. “What about the three pro-school-voucher executives who gave State Sen. Anthony Williams $5.4 million for his 2010 Democratic primary race for Governor. Will they form a Super PAC if he decides to run for Mayor in 2015?

“Super PAC dollars helped elect only the second Democrat in 40 years as San Diego’s Mayor in November 2012. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently put over $10 million into a Super PAC to support federal, state and local candidates around the country who favor same-sex marriage and gun control. He isn’t ruling out spending money to help his preferred successor for Mayor of New York.”

The non-partisan Committee of 70 continues to strongly support limiting campaign donations. It says, “Campaign limits have diminished Philadelphia’s dirty tradition known as ‘play-to-play’.”

It would like to see stronger controls on Super PACs, such as faster and fuller disclosure of donors. But it expresses its doubts if the US Supreme Court has the final say-so. The US Congress has turned back efforts to place controls on Super PAC spending too.

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics is proposing regulations aimed at keeping political committees from “coordinating” with a candidate. The proposal is well intentioned and worth a shot. But the Board of Ethics’ clout is limited. The maximum penalty for most violations is $2,000.

The Board of Ethics is meeting on Jan. 23 at 1 p.m. at One Parkway Building, 1515 Arch Street, 18th floor, Room 18-020.

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