A trio of Minnesota organizations wants to contribute directly to GOP-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer and the Republican Party of Minnesota without having to register as political organizations – and they’re suing to get that right.
Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and Coastal Travel Enterprises are seeking an injunction in Minneapolis’ District Court, and they’ve enlisted the help of the lawyer that successfully litigated the recent U.S. Supreme Court case – known as Citizens United – that overturned laws banning independent expenditures by corporations.
The Minnesota DFL and watchdog groups say the effort is an attempt to circumvent disclosure laws passed unanimously by the legislature earlier this year and is detrimental to a transparent election process.
James Bopp, Jr., lead counsel of both Citizens United and the Minnesota case, said the lawsuit is about state law mandating corporations set up special funds or PACs in order to donate to candidate.
“The Supreme Court was clear when it said in Citizens United that corporations have free-speech rights. Minnesota’s attempt to subvert the Supreme Court is blatantly unconstitutional,” he said in a statement. “And, the reasoning of Citizens means that corporations should also be able to make their own contributions, without having to use a special ‘fund.’ Regardless, the Constitution forbids government treating similar groups differently, as Minnesota does to corporations and every other type of association.”
According to the lawsuit (PDF), the groups have already decided which candidates to support through advertising:
“A specific planned example for MCCL is an [independent expenditure] of over $100 for a communication expressly advocating the election of Tom Emmer for Governor. A specific planned example for Taxpayers League is an [independent expenditure] of over $100 for a communication expressly advocating the election of Paul Gazelka, state senate candidate for District 12.”
Likewise, all three have identified the same candidates to give direct funds to:
A specific example of a contribution that MCCL and Coastal want to make is a contribution to the campaign of Tom Emmer, candidate for Governor. A specific example of a contribution that Taxpayers League wants to make is a contribution to the campaign of Paul Gazelka, candidate for state senator from District 12. Each of the Corporations want to make like general-fund contributions before the general election to these and/or other candidates they support…As soon as possible, MCCL and Coastal want to make a general-fund contribution, totaling over $100 in a year, to a political party. A specific planned example for both MCCL and Coastal is a contribution of over $100 before the general election to the Republican Party of Minnesota. Minnesota prohibits corporate general-fund corporate contributions to political parties.
The lawsuit does not sit well with DFLers.
“Voters – not corporations – should hold the power in Minnesota elections and these groups are suing to wrestle that power away from Minnesotans,” said state Rep. Ryan Winkler, a DFLer from Golden Valley. “They want to spend millions in corporate cash to elect ultra conservative candidates and they don’t want the public to know where the money is coming from.”
Winkler, along with state Sen. Ann Rest of New Hope, helped push through stronger campaign finance disclosure laws in the wake of Citizens United. The lawsuit seeks to overturn those laws, passed unanimously by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty this session.
“These are simple rules for clean politics and public information,” Rest said. “We need this law to keep Minnesota elections accountable, fair and open to the public. The fact that these groups are pushing so hard to keep their actions out of the public eye should make voters uncomfortable. It’s not how we do things in Minnesota.”
Winkler sees the suit to overturn Minnesota campaign finance rules as part of a larger agenda.
“This lawsuit is part of a national movement by the ultra right wing of the Republican Party to further dampen the voices of individual voters by injecting unlimited corporate cash into our political campaigns,” said Winker. “This may have been how American elections were conducted under Richard Nixon, but they certainly shouldn’t be conducted this way today.”
Already Bopp and his legal team have seen success in San Diego, where Bopp got campaign finance limits in city elections overturned. Minnesota, with its robust disclosure laws, seems to be the next target.
“Minnesota has a reputation for good campaign finance laws,” said Mike Dean of Minnesota Common Cause. “If they can turn back our laws, then it will become easier to turn back laws
in other states.”
Dean, of Minnesota Common Cause, “a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen’s lobby dedicated to improving the way state government operates,” said the lawsuit would lessen transparency in elections.
If the laws were overturned, he said, “It would allow special interests to operate in the shadows with virtually no oversight.”
He said that the courts have upheld disclosure laws such as those that require corporate donations in the form of political funds to report contributions and disbursements. The lawsuit in Minnesota, would eliminate those requirements.
“This information in necessary for the public to make an informed decision during the election and prevent corruption,” he said.
“But, the most disturbing part of the lawsuit is that they want to allow corporations to give money directly to candidates for elected office in Minnesota,” Dean added. “The courts have repeatedly found direct contributions make candidates more susceptible to corruption and the appearance of corruption.”
“Overturning the direct contribution ban would legalize bribery to candidates and bring Washington style politics to Minnesota,” he said.
Minnesota has already seen some changes to campaign finance laws following the Citizens United ruling. The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce sued the state earlier this year to allow corporations to make independent expenditures on behalf of candidates for television ads, radio spots and rallies. The judge ruled that Minnesota laws banning those activities violated the First Amendment and were permissible so long as there is no coordination with campaigns.