“You Have a Republic, As Long As You Can Keep It”

“You Have a Republic, As Long As You Can Keep It”

I often repeat a line that Ben Franklin reportedly said as he left the Constitutional Convention:  “You have a republic, as long as you can keep it.”  I believe that is still the case.  Today, our constitutional project of self-governance is under threat.

As Colorado’s next Attorney General, I will fight for our constitutional democracy.  This means taking on the challenge of reforming campaign finance spending, with particular respect to the role that “dark money”—that is, undisclosed campaign expenditures—plays in our politics in the wake of the horrendous Citizens United decision.  And as a candidate, I will call on any group spending money on my behalf to disclose their donors so Colorado voters know who is seeking to influence them.

In the last election for Colorado Attorney General, the Republican nominee raised and spent around $500,000 from individuals who disclosed their occupation and employer.  But this spending paled in comparison to the approximately $2.5 million spent by the Republican Attorney General’s Association (RAGA), a group that takes in large amounts of “dark money” (from undisclosed donors).  The lack of transparency, the support from a range of corporate interests, and the unfair attacks used by such groups are threatening the foundation of our constitutional democracy.  This problem goes back to the Citizens United case, which was the height of conservative judicial activism and may well be the worst Supreme Court decision of my lifetime.

To appreciate the damage that dark money can do to our elections and public discourse, consider the recent election campaign of Rachel Zenzinger, a State Senator from Arvada.  When she ran for Senate, an outside group sent out a mailing stating that she took a taxpayer-funded trip to China.  This claim flew in face of the facts.  The facts are that, while she was “on the Arvada City Council in 2013, Zenzinger made–and then voted for–a successful motion explicitly prohibiting use of taxpayer funds for a proposed sister-city delegation to China.”  Moreover, she never actually went on the trip, as the funds were not raised.  Nonetheless, a group with an innocuous sounding name, Colorado Citizens for Accountable Government, promoted this lie.  And this group, which is technically required to report its donors, took advantage of a loophole in Colorado law by strategically raising its funds late in the election cycle so it could engage in this behavior without having to disclose who was behind this effort until after the election.  It also declined to state on flyers it circulated what group even paid for it.

There are important steps we can take in Colorado to address the efforts of “dark money” groups to influence elections and remain hidden from view.  First off, we need an Attorney General committed to doing everything we can to push for a reversal of the Citizen’s United decision.  This campaign won’t be easy, but the battle must be waged and we must prepare for the day when this decision—like other grave mistakes in constitutional law—is overruled.  Justice Stevens’ dissent in that case prophetically explained that Citizens United “threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation.”  It is now the job of State Attorneys General to demonstrate just how this is happening and make the case against this decision.  Colorado needs an AG able to lead this fight.

Second, we need to effectively enforce our existing campaign finance laws.  In 2016, former Congressman Bob Beauprez was fined a record-breaking sum for setting up a complex corporate structure that shielded the identities of his donors who supported his so-called “charity” that he used to influence state legislative races. Such cases are rare, however, because it is up to private citizens to bankroll investigations and file civil complaints.  We need our Attorney General’s office to help support and pursue such investigations and complaints.  As AG, I would push for legislation authorizing the AG’s office to pursue such actions.

Finally, Colorado should pass a Disclose Act, modeled on a law passed in Montana, that would directly restrict the ability of firms to spend money in Colorado elections without disclosing their donors.  Montana passed such a law, on a bipartisan basis, after press accounts of how prior “dark money” campaigns in Montana (and Colorado) had sought to influence elections and coordinate with candidates (in violation of the law).  Colorado should also tighten up its campaign finance laws, fixing the loophole that allowed the group that falsely attacked Zenzinger to disclose its donors only after the damage was done.  In a move to stop this sort of abuse, Denver recently adopted an ordinance designed to address the fear that “a proliferation of anonymous attack ads and mailers that try to puff up one candidate or cut down another without disclosing who’s behind them” will influence our local elections.  Notably, the Denver law introduces three important fixes to campaign finance: (1) Groups would be required to identify themselves on advertisements; (2) donors (of $25 or more) to any group spending money to influence elections would have to be identified; and (3) spending of more than $1,000 on electioneering would require disclosure within two days.

Our constitutional democracy is under threat from a number of challenges, including how campaigns are financed.  I believe voters need to know who is seeking to influence them and that the continued growth of dark money is leading to more attack ads and more cynicism.  We in Colorado need to do our part to protect our democracy.  As our next Attorney General, I will make this a top priority.

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