This op-ed by Michael Keegan, President, People For the American Way was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Late last month, news broke that the network of political organizations tied to Charles and David Koch was developing plans to spend nearly a billion dollars in the 2016 elections.
Given that unprecedented investment, it's essential to understand precisely what the Kochs and their front groups are doing. Yesterday, People for the American Way released a new report exploring one of these groups: the Libre Initiative, which aims to win over Latino voters for Republicans.
With much of its funding coming from the Kochs, Libre has the resources it needs to try to run an aggressive campaign aimed at making inroads in the Latino community. As Politico reported recently, "Libre, which already has a presence in eight states, plans to expand to Wisconsin and North Carolina this year and increase its staff by about 30 percent ahead of 2016."
The group's millions go to promoting conservative causes to the Latino community and using deceptive ads to attack Democrats. Civil rights leader and People for the American Way board member Dolores Huerta described Libre best: "This is just another flashy way for the Koch brothers to try to con Latinos into supporting a party that's run by anti-immigrant, anti-Latino, anti-environmental extremists. We won't be fooled; the group has the wrong priorities on the issues that matter most to us." Though the group is doing all it can to push GOP priorities like blocking an increase in the minimum wage and rallying against clean energy development, poll after poll has shown that the majority of Latinos and Libre aren't on the same page when it comes to these and other issues.
If Libre stuck to debating the issues, that would be one thing. Libre's real threat -- both to Democrats and to the Latino community -- is that it uses its considerable financial resources to say one thing and do another.
In typical Koch fashion, Libre has made vicious, often dishonest attacks against Democrats. It's ironic, albeit unsurprising, that the Democrats Libre attacked in 2014 included some of the strongest Latino voices in Congress, like former U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Texas). And based on Libre's actions in the past, we can count on Libre to pay only lip service to supporting immigration reform. So far, the Libre playbook has gone like this: Claim to support immigration reform, applaud Speaker Boehner for making vague remarks somewhat supportive of immigration reform, and -- here's the kicker -- run attack ads against Democrats who actually vote in favor of immigration reform.
Activists shouldn't hold our breath hoping that the Kochs and other deep-pocketed conservatives will stop their lies. Instead, it's up to us to push back. PFAW's doing that by reaching out to Latino voters with a focus on the issues that matter and calling out Republicans when their promises just don't match up with their votes.
Despite Libre's deep coffers and its apparent desire to win over Latino voters to the GOP, that party's offensive anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions continue. Just look at the current Congress, where Republicans are hijacking funding for the Department of Homeland Security to block the president's executive actions on immigration even though, as Ted Hesson wrote at Fusion, "only a small minority of Americans think that's the best way to approach the issue" in Congress.
As long as Republicans keep opposing policies that most Latinos and Americans as a whole support, it's unlikely the Libre Initiative will have much success. But given the deep support and huge bank accounts of its two most important funders, the threat posed by Libre is one that we should all take seriously.
Today, People For the American Way released a new Right Wing Watch: In Focus report on the Libre Initiative, a right-wing organization attempting to win over Latino voters for the Republican Party. The report explores the Koch brothers’ control over Libre, the values the group espouses, and the deceptive tactics it uses.
With plans to spend nearly $1 billion to support conservatives in 2016, it should come as no surprise that the Koch brothers are behind a group like Libre, providing at least half of its funding in 2011 and 2012.
The group uses those funds to attempt to push for a range of conservative policy priorities, such as fighting increases in the minimum wage. As the report explains, Libre tries to send a “kinder and gentler Republican message to Latino voters while continuing to push the GOP’s economic policies — many of which disproportionately hurt Latinos.”
In 2014, Libre invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in attack ads — technically “nonpartisan” — to attack Democratic incumbents in heavily Latino states and districts. Although the group nominally supports comprehensive immigration reform, in several cases its ads aided Republican candidates who were hostile to reform.
In the next election cycle, conservatives will use gobs of outside money to try to win over Latino voters. In the meantime, PFAW will remain committed to engage all communities in our political system, fight to reduce the harmful influence of corporate money (including the Kochs’) in politics, and expose the deceitful tactics of the Right.
In an interview with Vox released today, President Obama expressed his support for constitutional remedies to our country’s worsening money in politics problem.
The president said:
I would love to see some constitutional process that would allow us to actually regulate campaign spending the way we used to, and maybe even improve it.
This isn’t the first time the president has weighed in on the push for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United. In 2012 during a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, President Obama made a splash when he said that “over the longer term, I think we need to seriously consider mobilizing a constitutional amendment process to overturn Citizens United.” As the Vox article notes, today’s comments go a step beyond his previous remarks.
Agree with the president? Share our graphic and show your support:
You can watch the full interview with President Obama here:
PFAW activists joined with allies from Public Citizen, Open Democracy, and others last Thursday at public hearings on New Hampshire House and Senate bills calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
About 50 supporters of a constitutional amendment attended each hearing, creating standing room only and overflow in the small room reserved for the House bill hearing.
Speakers included small business owners, activists who passed local town resolutions in favor of an amendment, and high school students. Not a single person testified in opposition to the proposed legislation, underscoring the deep support among Americans of all backgrounds for fixing our big money system.
The bills (HB 371 and SB 136) call for the state legislature to recommend a constitutional amendment to the state’s congressional delegation, as well as for public hearings in geographically diverse areas across the state to decide the exact language for such an amendment.
A committee in the New Hampshire House will vote on the bill in an executive session on Wednesday afternoon, while the appropriate Senate committee has not yet set a date for a vote. PFAW activists and allies will be back at the state capitol next week for a lobby day to meet with key representatives and senators on Wednesday, February 4th.
Interested in joining us? For more information and to RSVP, email Lindsay Jakows at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In an important victory for fair courts and the principle that justice is available to all, an appeals court in California today issued a decision granting a new trial for an undocumented immigrant whose immigration status was revealed to jurors despite its irrelevance to the issues in the case. People For the American Way had joined the UC Hastings Appellate Project and the ACLU of Southern California in submitting an amicus brief in the case, Velasquez v. Centrome, Inc. dba Advanced Biotech.
In this case, a former factory worker named Wilfredo Velasquez sued Advanced Biotech, Inc. for its alleged failure to tell his employer about the harms of a chemical he was exposed to while on the job — exposure which he says led to a devastating lung disease. But during the jury selection, the trial judge revealed to jurors that Velasquez was undocumented, an action that, in the words of our amicus brief, “unnecessarily injected prejudice into the selection process, making it impossible to know whether Mr. Velasquez received his constitutionally guaranteed fair trial by impartial jurors.” The threat to Velasquez’s right to a fair trial became clear when the jury concluded that Advanced Biotech had indeed been negligent — yet still awarded no damages to Velasquez, meaning that he, in effect, lost his case.
Fortunately, today the appeals court righted this wrong by granting Velasquez a new trial. The state appeals court noted that “cases both in California and in multiple other jurisdictions have recognized the strong danger of prejudice attendant with the disclosure of a party’s status as an undocumented immigrant.” Indeed, we have seen how undocumented immigrants face ongoing hostility in our country.
As the amicus brief notes, every person, regardless of immigration status, has a right to “a verdict rendered by an impartial jury.” It is a right that must remain a foundational principle of our judicial system.
On Monday the push for the Democracy For All Amendment, a proposed constitutional amendment that would overturn decisions like Citizens United v. FEC and allow legislators to put reasonable limits on money in elections, became a bipartisan effort in Congress when Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) signed on as a cosponsor of the legislation.
While this is a historic step that deserves celebration, in many ways it is long overdue. Washington is the only place where the fight to get big money out of politics is a partisan issue, and it hasn’t always been that way.
Similar amendments proposed in the past have found bipartisan support in Congress, including from Rep. Jones. Republican elected officials across the country have been advocating at the local and state level to get big money out of politics. In fact, a recent report from Free Speech For People highlights the more than 100 Republican officials nationwide who favor an amendment to overturn decisions like Citizens United.
Among voters, it’s also a bipartisan movement, with Americans of all political stripes speaking out against a democracy unduly influenced by corporations and billionaires. A 2014 poll found that in Senate battleground states, almost three in four voters favor a constitutional amendment to undo the harm of decisions like Citizens United, including majorities in “even the reddest states.” This support did not waver among Republican voters polled: amendment supporters outnumbered opponents by a 26 percent margin.
Still, Rep. Jones’ decision to become a cosponsor of the Democracy For All Amendment is an important step forward. Money in politics is an issue that affects all of us, and one that Americans of all political backgrounds feel strongly about. It’s only fitting that our federal elected officials in both parties listen to the voices of their constituents and join the movement to take our democratic process back from the grips of wealthy special interests.
Over the weekend, likely Republican 2016 presidential candidates stepped up to the microphone at two extremist events to throw red meat at their Radical Right base and prove their ultraconservative bona fides in the run up to primary season.
Union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker won the day with the most well-received speech, in which his biggest applause came when he bragged about his party’s attempts at voter suppression in his state, saying, “we required in our state, by law, a photo ID to vote.”
Former Arkansas Governor and 2008 Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee said states should ignore Supreme Court rulings favorable to marriage equality.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie played up how staunchly anti-choice he is.
Senator Ted Cruz made the case for caucus voters to weed out anyone but extreme right-wing candidates. “Every candidate is going to come to you and say they are the most conservative person that ever lived,” Cruz said. “Talk is cheap.”
And at a separate Religious Right event, hosted by SPLC-designated hate group the American Family Association, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal discussed the need to enshrine discrimination against same-sex couples in the Constitution, promoted Islamophobic conspiracy theories and closed his speech with the statement “our god wins.” That event, titled The Response, perfectly embodied the dangers of mixing religion with politics in the way that the Right so loves to do.
By making political issues – even incredibly important ones, and even ones that are historically divisive – litmus tests for their followers’ religious conviction, they cast their opponents not only as wrong, but as evil and satanic, allowing for no possibility of compromise and making even civil coexistence difficult.
It was a lot of what you’d expect – unfortunately – but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. These are the people who are setting the agenda for one of America’s two major parties – and the one that right now controls both houses of Congress.
Read more and check out video from both events at RightWingWatch.org.
UPDATE: Jon Stewart's can't-miss segment on the Freedom Summit from the Daily Show (video courtesy of Comedy Central):
This op-ed was originally published at The Huffington Post.
Five years ago this week, the Supreme Court handed down its damaging decision in Citizens United v. FEC. The ruling, which allowed wealthy interests to buy unprecedented influence in elections, was and still is deeply unpopular. But the issue of money in politics remains, for some people, relegated to a category of "someone else's issue" -- the policy wonks in Washington, the researchers who spend long hours sifting through the latest campaign data. "It's their issue," we think.
In reality, the decisions like Citizens United that paved the way for the big-money election system we have today affect our lives every day, even when those connections can be hard to see.
Last month, Demos released a report laying bare some of those links, especially as they affect people of color. Their analysis highlighted how big money in politics undermines racial equality:
Elections funded primarily by wealthy, white donors mean that candidates as a whole are less likely to prioritize the needs of people of color; and that candidates of color are less likely to run for elected office, raise less money when they do, and are less likely to win.
The report point outs that in some ways, this is not new: As long as our country has been a country, people of color have been shortchanged by our democratic system. Our history is littered with violent retaliation and unrelenting roadblocks for many who tried to actively participate in our democracy. But those setting a political agenda that shortchanges people of color haven't always had unlimited billionaire and corporate political dollars backing them up.
What does this mean in real people's lives? It means more mass incarceration, for one, the harm of which African Americans disproportionately bear. Wealthy people are more likely than low-income people to support the construction of more prisons, and studies have found that the rich have greater influence on policy outcomes. Private prison companies, whose bottom lines depend on getting people behind bars, spend millions to influence policymakers, and groups like the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have pushed for tougher sentencing laws. But it's often people of color who pay the price, when family members and friends suddenly disappear from their communities.
It also means a stagnant minimum wage, which women of color are disproportionately likely to be earning. While the public strongly supports raising the minimum wage, groups like the Chamber of Commerce, which opposes raising it, can afford to pour millions into elections and hold serious sway with lawmakers. Though not immediately apparent, there is a direct connection to the amount of money a low-income woman takes home in her paycheck and the Supreme Court decisions governing our big-money political system.
And the list could go on and on. At the end of the day, money in politics cannot be "someone else's issue." Because it distorts who is heard by our elected officials, it affects what's in your paycheck, who ends up in prison, what kind of health care we have access to, what kind of environment we leave for our children, and much more.
That's why one piece of the larger fight for racial justice must be reforming the rules governing money in elections. It's fitting that we mark the fifth anniversary of Citizens United on the same week we remember the life of Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, in his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech, King said, "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."
In the wake of Citizens United, the struggle to make those promises real has become even more urgent.
Last week, People For the American Way’s Right Wing Watch reported on a Christian Post column by right-wing commentator Larry Tomczak in which he warned that Hollywood is “promoting homosexuality” by “targeting innocent and impressionable children.” In particular, Tomczak attacked Ellen DeGeneres, whom he wrote “celebrates her lesbianism and ‘marriage’ in between appearances of guests like Taylor Swift to attract young girls.”
The column caught the attention of none other than Ellen herself, who responded to Tomczak on her show this week.
She told Tomczak: “First of all, I’m not ‘married.’ I’m married. That’s all,” adding “I don’t even know what it means to ‘celebrate my lesbianism.’”
She then revealed her true “gay agenda”:
PFAW members and other local activists lined the sidewalk outside of the National Republican Club Tuesday afternoon to protest a fundraiser event for House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.
Scalise, who was elected Majority Whip by his Republican colleagues back in June, has come under fire recently after it came to light that in 2002, he gave a speech to a white supremacist group affiliated with former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. Scalise even has referred to himself as “David Duke without the baggage.”
Incredibly, even after these revelations, the Republican caucus—including Speaker John Boehner – is standing by Scalise. And Scalise certainly doesn’t seem to think this scandal is reason to slow down his fundraising efforts, as evidenced by the meeting his team held with donors on Tuesday, where PFAW members joined protestors from other organizations including Color of Change and Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc.
It’s hard to believe that the GOP, which has struggled so much to reach minority voters, isn’t distancing itself from party leadership with ties to white supremacists. Republicans need to be held accountable – we need to ask our Republican representatives in Congress whether, in 2015, they are brave enough to take a stand against racism.
Thousands of PFAW members have already signed the petition calling on Speaker Boehner to remove Scalise from his leadership position. Add your name now.
The Republican Party never ceases to amaze me. For a party whose problems with minorities are well documented, you would think the GOP would be sensitive to anything that could further erode their reputation among this growing population. Yet after learning that the new House Majority Whip Steve Scalise gave a speech to a white supremacist organization led by former Ku Klux Klan leader, David Duke, Speaker Boehner and the rest of the Republican Party are standing by their man.
Let me just say that again. The # 3 Republican in the House of Representatives gave a speech to a white supremacists group in 2002 led by a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard! Rep. Scalise even described himself as “David Duke without the baggage.”
The Center for American Progress released a report on Tuesday which underscores the growth in population of the people white supremacist organizations despise. At the heart of the report was the question of whether the Republican party could begin to make inroads with voters of color in order to compete in presidential elections. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if recent actions are any indication, it’s not looking likely.
People For the American Way and our friends at American Bridge released a Spanish-language ad Monday highlighting Scalise’s actions and reminding Latino voters what the Republican party is really all about. The web ad will run in Virginia and Colorado. Read more about the ad here, and check it out below:
In a victory for LGBT equality and genuine religious liberty, Michigan’s state legislature ended its 2014 lame duck session last night without passing a bill that would have allowed individuals and businesses to cite religious beliefs to bypass state anti-discrimination laws.
The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act would have allowed business owners to refuse service to LGBT customers, and was initially introduced as a counter to a proposed state bill that would protect LGBT people from discrimination. But while the anti-discrimination bill never even moved, the discriminatory bill passed in the House.
After the bill was introduced in the state legislature, PFAW members and local activists mobilized to call lawmakers and raise awareness of the bill’s dangerous consequences for LGBT Michiganders. Efforts like this are not unique to Michigan and come in the wake of this year’s 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby case. This legislation is part of a nationwide campaign by the Right to hijack freedom of religion and use it as a weapon to deny Americans their fundamental rights.
Fortunately, the bill -- which has been called the “right to discriminate” bill by some – did not even come to the State Senate floor for a vote.
This was the second of two victories in the Michigan state legislature’s lame duck session. Earlier this month, Michigan Republicans introduced a bill that would change the way the state’s electoral votes are counted in presidential elections. This strategy isn’t unique to Michigan, but is part of a larger right-wing effort to use Republican election victories in blue and swing states to consolidate political power by rigging the Electoral College, tilting the playing field to the GOP’s advantage. Last year, PFAW helped beat back similar plans in Pennsylvania and Virginia that would have changed the way those states apportion their electoral votes. In Michigan, we were just as engaged, with our members and staff attending committee hearings and lobbying legislators.
With the passage of a key deadline last week, the Electoral College rigging bill is also effectively dead for the year. But its proponents can (and likely will) bring it up again in the 2015 session – as they may also do with the “right to discriminate” bill. Michigan’s lame duck session has ended without either of these insidious bills becoming law, but the fight is far from over. We expect to see similar state-level legislative attacks from the Right throughout the next year. PFAW is proud to be a leader in the ongoing fight against right-wing extremism, and we’re ready to keep working in defense of progressive values in 2015 and beyond.