The Target Story and Disclosure

Target’s misguided donation to a pro-corporate, anti-gay Minnesota gubernatorial candidate has (with good reason) caused quite an uproar recently. But the dominant narrative – that Target will serve as a cautionary tale warning other big corporations against getting involved in politics – isn’t quite right.

As an NPR story yesterday made clear, the lesson of the Target story for many like-minded corporations is: don’t get caught.

Target gave to a group that is legally bound to identify its contributors. That's why Target's contribution became known.

Many other groups don't have to disclose a thing. So a company can channel its money — and its message — through a business association or an advocacy group, and outsiders will never know.

"Given all these different ways that you can spend your money without generating a national news story, certainly I think a lot of corporate executives are saying this is just a reminder to use all those other tools that we have in our tool kit," says Robert Kelner, a campaign finance lawyer in Washington.

The DISCLOSE Act, which was brought down by Republican obstruction earlier this summer, is likely to return to the Senate in September. Its passage would oblige all corporations to be transparent about their political involvement, making the Target story a true cautionary tale.


Fox Doubles Down on GOP Bias

Although there has always been an extremely thin line between news journalism and Republican Party activism at the Fox News Channel, network's parent company -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. just became not just a propaganda arm of the GOP, but also the party's financier. According to a Bloomberg report, the Republican Governors Association received a $1 million donation from News Corporation, the parent company of Fox Broadcasting and the Fox News Channel, and conservative newspapers such as the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal. In fact, News Corp. was the RGA's "biggest corporate donor." The RGA, whose "primary mission is to help elect Republicans to governorships throughout the nation," is headed by Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who was formerly the Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

News Corp is not the only media company directly funding political advocacy groups. Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., which operates multiple television and radio outlets in Minnesota, New York, and New Mexico, contributed $100,000 to MN Forward, a conservative organization backed by other corporations such as Target and BestBuy. MN Forward's main goal is to support far-right Republican Tom Emmer's campaign for Governor of Minnesota.

Now that media companies such as News Corp and Hubbard Broadcasting are specifically siding with Republicans candidates in the upcoming election, it's only fair that news anchors inform their viewers of their parent company's direct support for certain candidates. While Republican favoritism has always been obvious on Fox News, the Citizens United ruling allows Fox's support for the GOP to go even further potentially by making enormous direct financial contributions to Republican campaign committees. Fox is no longer just a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, as it is now its unambiguous sponsor and patron.


Monitoring Corporate Spending

Since Citizens United, as we’ve noted, corporations have been taking advantage of their permission slip to spend unlimited amounts on elections. Now Bill de Blasio, the public advocate for the City of New York, is making it easier to track which corporations are getting involved in politics.

This week, de Blasio launched a website that breaks major corporations into three categories: those that have pledged to stay out of politics, those that have not pledged to stay out of politics, and those prepared (like Target) to spend money in politics. He also makes it easy for web surfers to contact corporations and encourage them not to spend on elections.

De Blasio’s public spirited website is a great tool, but citizens shouldn’t be expected to spend every election monitoring corporate machinations. Ultimately, we need a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. That’s why we’re asking all federal elected officials and candidates to sign our pledge to support an amendment. Has your representative signed the pledge?


You Can Have Your Freedom of Religion, But You Can’t Exercise It

This afternoon, the “yes, the Constitution grants freedom of religion, but this time you’d better not use it” argument has gained its newest, and most disappointing, adherent.

Under pressure from his ultra right-wing opponent in the Nevada senate race, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid paid lip service to the First Amendment while stating his opposition to the building of a Muslim community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in lower Manhattan:

"The First Amendment protects freedom of religion," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement. "Sen. Reid respects that but thinks that the mosque should be built someplace else."

Reid is the most senior Democrat to come out in opposition to the mosque.

It perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise that hoards of Republican elected officials who live far from New York have come out against what the Right Wing has branded the “Ground Zero Mosque.” It was, after all, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich who turned what was a New York City zoning issue into a national fit of misinformed intolerance.

But it’s deeply disappointing to realize we’ve reached the point where the most powerful Democrat in the Senate is parroting Right Wing talking points at the expense of defending basic American values and constitutional rights.

The Right’s extremist machine has tried to make intolerance and xenophobia a noisy election year issue. When someone like Reid gives them cover for their cynical ploy, they begin to succeed.



A Cynical Election Strategy

The GOP has already set to work making the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan – and President Obama’s support for the project – into a midterm campaign issue. Sharron Angle accused President Obama of siding “against the families of 9/11 victims.” John Boehner called the President’s stance “deeply troubling.”

But Mark Halperin at Time Magazine urged the GOP to reconsider its cynical strategy:

It isn't clear how the battle over the proposed center should or will end. But two things are profoundly clear: Republicans have a strong chance to win the midterm elections without picking a fight over President Obama's measured words. And a national political fight conducted on the terms we have seen in the past few days will lead to a chain reaction at home and abroad that will have one winner -- the very extreme and violent jihadists we all can claim as our true enemy.

Greg Sargent of the Washington Post concurred, writing:

It's one thing for Republicans to argue the case against the center on the merits. Fine. Agree or disagree, the same First Amendment that protects the right of the group to build the center also protect the right of conservatives to make a case against it.

But it's another thing entirely if Republicans adopt criticism of Obama's speech as part of a concerted electoral strategy. As Halperin notes, doing this strays perilously close to stoking anti-Muslim bigotry and religious intolerance in the quest for electoral gain.

Incidentally, if Rep. Boehner was really interested in honoring the victims of September 11, I can think of at least one more positive thing he could have done on their behalf: voted for the 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010, which would have helped the many 9/11 heroes who are still with us afford health care for long term injuries and illnesses caused by the attacks. Boehner and many of his fellow GOP Representatives obstructed that particular bill from becoming law, choosing instead to focus their energies on a publicity war against Muslim Americans.


Wall Street Falls in Love with the GOP All Over Again

A new Center for Responsive Politics study shows that Wall Street executives are now making 70% of their political contributions to Republicans. (And this is the money we can track: Wall Street firms can now use unlimited amounts of their corporate treasuries on political activities without disclosing what they’re doing). According to the report, the spike in Wall Street’s financial appreciation of the GOP coincided—coincidentally, I’m sure--with the Congressional debate over the financial reform law that was passed earlier this summer.

The new regulations were intended to prevent Wall Street from engaging in the kind of reckless behavior that got us into the recession. But Senate Republicans, obstructing progress as usual, voted nearly unanimously against reform. As Right Wing Watch reported, many of the GOP’s stated criticisms of the bill were bald-faced lies. For example, some Republicans claimed that the law would lead to more bailouts, when in fact it was specifically designed to prevent future taxpayer-funded get-out-of-jail-free cards for banks.

The GOP’s unified and factually incorrect opposition to financial reform may not have earned them much love from the Americans on Main Street who have lost their homes, jobs, or livelihoods in the recession…but at least they made some friends on Wall Street.


Failure to Disclose

While banks and insurance companies are heavily betting on Republicans this election year, we may never know what companies are behind third-party ads pushing for corporate-friendly policies and politicians. Since forty-one Republican senators voted in lock-step to block the DISCLOSE Act ("Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections"), the bill hasn't yet had an opportunity to receive an up-or-down vote in the Senate.

The DISCLOSE Act, which the House passed in June, would prohibit corporations that are foreign-owned or receive federal dollars from engaging in electoral activity, and would mandate that third party political groups publicize their donors and include disclaimers on advertisements. So far, however, the obstructionists in the Senate have derailed this drive for transparency in politics by blocking a vote on DISCLOSE. Unless the Senate leadership is able to break through this obstructionism when Congress comes back from its August recess,third party groups will have free license to spend handsomely on elections without releasing a single source of their funding.

A recent Fortune article points out why the DISCLOSE Act is needed, as even Goldman Sachs, which says it will not directly contribute to political organizations, "can publicly say it won't fund political ads, and still go right ahead doing it privately." As Tory Newmyer maintains: "[T]rade associations and other non-profit groups can now spend freely on ads attacking or supporting specific candidates. And because those groups don't always have to identify their funders, they provide a safe vehicle for corporations looking to launder their involvement in dicey election contests."

Due to a state law, the business-backed independent expenditure political committee Minnesota Forward was forced to publicly list its donors. However, when advocates found out that companies such as Target and BestBuy were behind a group that supports a gubernatorial candidate with a horrendous record on gay-rights and consumer protection, they encountered severe pushback from customers and advocates.

But while Target and BestBuy got caught, other corporations and affiliated groups learned from their mistakes. Dirk Van Dongen, the head of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, believes that the boycotts of Target won't stop other businesses from becoming involved in electoral activity, "noting that businesses can give anonymously to trade association and other non-profit campaign efforts."

In fact, Target did not promise to stop making political contributions, but would simply send them through a "review board" in the future. David Schultz, a campaign finance specialist at Hamline University, predicts that corporations, "exclusively driven by the Citizens United case," will increase their electoral spending by as much as 50% this year.

Corporate review boards do little to mitigate the impact of the new rules allowing for anonymous political engagement on the part of corporations. As Senator Chuck Schumer rightly maintains:

Allowing corporate and special interests, now because they have so much money, to pour that money into our political system without even disclosure, without even knowing who they are or what they are saying or why they are saying it, they are taking politics away, government away from the average person because of the influence of such large amounts of dollars.


I <3 NY, But Does Sarah Palin?

In his recent short New Yorker piece, Hendrick Herzberg points out something that’s been troubling me: some of the most vocal opponents of the “Ground Zero Mosque” (Sarah Palin, John McCain, Newt Gingrich) openly despise New York City as the ultimate haven of un-American “elites.”

In their attempt to protect the city against “peace-seeking Muslims,” these would-be demagogues prove that they either don’t understand or don’t value the diverse, all-American jumble that is New York. But as Herzberg demonstrates, the leaders of the proposed Islamic cultural center are typical New Yorkers and Americans:

Like many New Yorkers, the people in charge of Park51, a married couple, are from somewhere else—he from Kuwait, she from Kashmir. Feisal Abdul Rauf is a Columbia grad. He has been the imam of a mosque in Tribeca for close to thirty years. He is the author of a book called “What’s Right with Islam Is What’s Right with America.” He is a vice-chair of the Interfaith Center of New York. “My colleagues and I are the anti-terrorists,” he wrote recently—in the Daily News, no less. He denounces terrorism in general and the 9/11 attacks in particular, often and at length. The F.B.I. tapped him to conduct “sensitivity training” for agents and cops. His wife, Daisy Khan, runs the American Society for Muslim Advancement, which she co-founded with him. It promotes “cultural and religious harmony through interfaith collaboration, youth and women’s empowerment, and arts and cultural exchange.”

In his address a few days after September 11, then-President Bush made a special point of differentiating radical terrorists from mainstream Muslims. “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” he said. The leaders of today’s GOP, whose very public opposition to the Park51 project has sparked anti-Muslim protests across the country, seem to have lost that power of differentiation.


Senators Set the Record Straight on Just Who the “Activist” Justices Are

A recent PFAW poll revealed that the vast majority of Americans are intensely concerned about the growing corporate influence in our country and disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. Judging from numerous remarks made during last week’s Senate hearings on Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the Court, it seems that many of our elected representatives feel the same way. Though Republicans attempted to vilify Kagan (and Thurgood Marshall!) with accusations of judicial activism, Democrats fired back, pointing out that in fact it is the conservative Court majority that has employed such activism in going out of its way to side with corporate America. Senators used the floor debate to decry the Roberts Court’s record of favoring corporations over individuals and its disregard for Congressional intent and legal precedent:

Senator Schumer:

The American people are reaping the bitter harvest from new laws that have been made and old precedents that have been overturned. Put simply, in decision after decision, this conservative, activist Court has bent the law to suit an ideology. At the top of the list, of course, is the Citizens United case where an activist majority of the Court overturned a century of well-understood law that regulated the amount of money special interests could spend to elect their own candidates to public office.

Senator Gillibrand:

Narrow 5-to-4 decisions by a conservative majority have become the hallmark of the Roberts Court. These decisions have often been overreaching in scope and have repeatedly ignored settled law and congressional intent. For example, in the Citizens United case, the Court not only disregarded the extensive record compiled by Congress but abandoned established precedent.

Senator Franken:

[A]bove the entrance of the U.S. Supreme Court are four words, and four words only: ‘Equal Justice Under Law.’ When the Roberts Court chooses between corporate America and working Americans, it goes with corporate America almost every time, even when the citizens of this country, sitting in a duly appointed jury, have decided it the other way. That is not right. It is not equal justice under the law.

Senator Leahy:

It is essential that judicial nominees understand that, as judges, they are not members of any administration . . . Courts are not subsidiaries of any political party or interest group, and our judges should not be partisans. That is why . . . the recent decision by five conservative activist Justices in Citizens United to throw out 100 years of legal developments in order to invite massive corporate spending on elections for the first time in 100 years was such a jolt to the system.

Senator Whitehouse:

On the Roberts Court, one pattern is striking, the clear pattern of corporate victories at the Roberts Court. It reaches across many fields—across arbitration, antitrust, employment discrimination, campaign finance, legal pleading standards, and many others. Over and over on this current Supreme Court, the Roberts bloc guiding it has consistently, repeatedly rewritten our law in the favor of corporations versus ordinary Americans.”

Senator Cardin:

Well, this Supreme Court, too many times, by 5-to-4 decisions by the so-called conservative Justices, has been the most activist Court on ruling on the side of corporate America over ordinary Americans.

Senator Dorgan:

What I have seen recently and certainly in the case of Citizens United—and I believe it is the case in Ledbetter v. Goodyear—the Supreme Court too often these days divides into teams. By the way, the team that seems to be winning is the team on the side of the powerful, the team on the side of the big interests, the team on the side of the corporate interests. That ought not be the way the Supreme Court operates.



New Poll Shows Americans Want Less Corporate Influence in Politics

Last month, we commissioned a poll asking people across the country what they thought of corporate influence in elections and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United to expand that influence. The results were staggering.

A whopping 85% of voters surveyed said they thought corporations already have too much influence in our political system. 95 % agreed that “Corporations spend money on politics mainly to buy influence in government and elect people who are favorable to their financial interests.” 77% supported a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to limit the amount corporations can spend on elections, and 74% said they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who shared that view.

Yesterday, released the results [PDF] of a new poll on corporate money in politics, and guess what?

The MoveOn poll found:

  • “79% of voters polled, including 72% of Republicans and 75% of Independents, believe that it’s important that a candidate commit to reducing the influence of corporations over elections”
  • “Almost two out of three voters (60%) disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. Sixty-seven percent of those would be more likely to support a candidate who backs a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision.
  • “Seventy-seven percent of voters overall (including 70% of Republicans Independents), view corporate election spending as an attempt to bribe politicians rather than an expression of free speech that should not be limited.”

No matter how you cut the numbers, the pattern is clear. Americans want voters, not corporate money, to own our democracy.

Speaking of which…have you asked your elected officials and candidates to sign the Pledge to Protect America’s Democracy?


Citizens United and State Laws

The Citizens United decision didn’t merely overturn nearly a century of federal laws and precedents; it also threw state campaign finance laws into turmoil. Before Citizens United, 24 states restricted corporate spending in elections. After the Supreme Court invalidated the federal laws governing corporate influence in political campaigns, states started scrambling to prepare for their own campaign finance laws to be struck down. And none too soon: as we’ve mentioned before, legal challenges have already started to bring down some of these state-level laws.

On Monday, Wisconsin’s attorney general formally announced that the state’s campaign finance laws would have to be repealed. A local news station reported that lifting these restrictions could lead to an increase in campaign spending from $30 million last year to $90 million this year. It remains to be seen whether Wisconson, like many of the other states affected by the Supreme Court decision, will enact disclosure laws to lessen the impact of corporate money on elections.

The conservative majority on the Roberts court didn’t just invalidate the anti-corruption measures enacted by our democratically elected Congress. It also limited the ability of state governments to decide for themselves how to regulate their own elections. Wisconsin’s election laws are just the latest casualty. To keep track of what’s happening in other states, go here.


Julian Bond: In the Kagan Hearings, Echoes of the Past

Last month, Republican senators turned to a surprising strategy in their questioning of Supreme Court nominee (and now Supreme Court Justice) Elena Kagan. They attempted to smear Kagan by connecting her with a figure who most of us don’t see as a liability—the revered civil rights leader Justice Thurgood Marshall. The attacks Senators Charles Grassley, Jon Kyl, and Jeff Sessions levied at Marshall rang a bell for former NAACP member and People For board member Julian Bond. Bond writes in today’s Des Moines Register:

These attacks didn't surprise me because they're completely consistent with a party locked in the past, echoing the anti-civil rights message of those who opposed Justice Marshall's own confirmation in 1967.

Grassley, Sessions and their fellow Republicans roasted Solicitor General Kagan with the same attacks used against Marshall four decades earlier. Then, the late Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina complained about the likelihood that Marshall would be "a judicial activist," which he defined as someone "unable to exercise the self-restraint which is inherent in the judicial process when it is properly understood and applied, and who is willing to add to the Constitution things that are not in it and to subtract from the Constitution things which are in it."

When Ervin spoke of adding rights to the Constitution, there was no doubt that he was referring to the court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which he had fervently opposed. Ervin went on to join with 10 other southern Senators in voting against Marshall's confirmation.

Faced with the inevitable backlash for their attacks, today’s senators have tried to equivocate by saying they have no problem with Justice Marshall, just with his “judicial philosophy.” As Bond makes clear, that’s not a new—or convincing--argument.

For a refresher, take a look at the compilation of Marshall attacks Talking Points Memo put together after the first day of the Kagan hearings:


First Boehner Billboard Up, Second On the Way

Last month, PFAW Voters Alliance joined up with the AFL-CIO and Blue America PAC to host a contest to choose a billboard to grace a busy highway near House Minority Leader John Boehner’s home district. The winning concept is now a reality, by the side of a Cincinnati-area stretch of I-75:

The contest was such a success that we’ll be putting up a second billboard with the runner-up slogan:

Take a look at this segment on the first billboard from Cincinnati’s WLWT:

It’s not too late to contribute to the effort to confront Boehner on his home turf. You can find the billboard options here.

But first, let’s take a minute to remember why we’re putting up these billboards in the first place—and why it’s so important that Boehner doesn’t end up with more power in Congress than he already has. Just in the past two months, Boehner has:

  • Referred to the nation’s financial crisis as an insignificant “ant
  • Suggested that taxpayers bail out BP
  • Suggested that Congress not impose any new regulations on any industry (including, say, the oil industry) until there is an “emergency
  • Has repeatedly insisted on extending Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans without being able to explain how he would pay for it.

And that’s just what he could come up with during two summer months, in between rounds of golf.

Top photo: Howie Klein


Target apologizes, but will stay in politics

Why would two companies that received 100% ratings from the Human Rights Campaign's 2010 Corporate Equality Index give a combined $250,000 to a group backing a candidate with extreme anti-gay views? According to Target's CEO, the company was only trying to advance "policies aligned with our business objectives" when it contributed $150,000 to Minnesota Forward, a group whose sole purpose is to support the candidacy of State Rep. Tom Emmer, the Republican nominee for governor of Minnesota.

MN Forward is a creation of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership, and its top priority is, of course, lowering the corporate tax rate. In fact, MN Forward is led by Brian McClung, who previously served as "government affairs director for the Twin West Chamber of Commerce" and ran the "group's political-action committee." Benefiting from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, the organization already raised $1.1 million, much of it from corporate donors like Hubbard Broadcasting, Red Wing Shoe Co., Federated Insurance and Davisco Foods. Ultimately, MNForward hopes to obtain $2 to $5 million in order to run advertisements across the state promoting Emmer.

It's not a surprise that big business has rallied around Emmer, who repeatedly voted against consumer protection laws, such as "good faith" requirements for insurance companies, and raising the minimum wage. In fact, Emmer was rewarded with a perfect 100% rating from the Chamber of Commerce for his 2010 voting record. But Emmer is not only a consistent defender of corporations in the State House, but is also a leading opponent of gay rights.

He voted against a bill that would permit same-sex domestic partners to have rights over the burial of their deceased partners, and also opposed allowing domestic partners of state employees to collect health insurance. Emmer even voted against legislation that would mandate anti-bullying policies in public schools to protect LGBT youth. When a local Christian rock band's lead singer called the execution of gays "moral," Emmer refused to condemn the band, and instead called them "nice people."

While Emmer declined to denounce the viciously anti-gay rock band he has financially supported, he did take the opportunity to blast critics of corporate influence in elections as enemies of free speech.

In the end, faced with an outcry from shareholders and a boycott from consumers, Target's CEO apologized for the donations. However, the company did not say that it would stop making contributions; instead, it will create a review board to oversee future contributions.

No word yet from BestBuy and other companies who have financially backed MN Forward.


The Wrong Lesson To Learn From the Kagan Confirmation

Over at The Atlantic, Max Fisher draws some conclusions from the Kagan confirmation, and I think he’s pulled together a pretty good summation of what folks in Washington are thinking—but that doesn’t mean they’re right.

Fisher argues that since 37 votes were cast against Kagan, and since the GOP could pick up Senate seats in November, Obama will be forced to nominate a “moderate.”

Not so fast.

The fact that 37 Senators voted against Elena Kagan is a sign that Senate Republicans will fight anyone who gets nominated to the high court, no matter how unobjectionable (a fact that’s borne out by their disgraceful treatment of lower court nominees.) If Republicans are willing to attack a Supreme Court nominee endorsed by Jack Goldsmith, Miguel Estrada, Ken Starr and Ted Olson, they’re not going to let anyone off without a food fight.

Will more Republicans mean a bigger fight next time? Maybe, but there’s nothing to be done about it. President Obama should consider himself free to nominate whoever he wants: if we’re going to fight, it might as well be a fight worth having.