If there’s a sure bet in Wyoming politics in the upcoming general election, it’s that the state will see more “dark money” than ever before.
That’s not because unlimited political spending from groups that don’t have to disclose their donors has been particularly successful in the state. It’s the trend in politics throughout the nation since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010 made a mockery of campaign finance transparency.
We’ve already seen an influx. Dark money was used to try to defeat eventual GOP gubernatorial nominee Mark Gordon in the August primary. At least three anonymous organizations targeted Gordon with mailers and broadcast attacks — Protecting Our Constitution, Jobs for Wyoming and the Sensible Solutions Coalition.
What all three groups have in common are direct ties to mystery conservative organizations that are also active in “dark money” campaigns in other states.
Wyoming doesn’t have to look far to gauge the influence of dark money in state politics. An excellent documentary about Montana officials’ fierce fight for more transparency in its elections, “Dark Money,” was recently broadcast on PBS’s Point of View series.
Until Citizens United, Montana was protected by a 1912 state law called the Corrupt Practices Act that prevented corporations from contributing to political campaigns. The legislation was a direct response to corrupt mining barrons’ undue influence in Montana politics and it had served the people of Montana well for more than a century. Montana lost its appeal to keep the law in effect when the same 5-4 conservative majority that gave us Citizens United issued a terse one-page decision against the state.
Twenty-two states joined Montana in the appeal. Wyoming, which had its own state law against corporate donations, did not join the effort.
“Dark Money” details how a group called Western Tradition Partnership tried to buy a Legislature that would support its pro “right to work” anti-union agenda. Instead of trying to sway sitting lawmakers through lobbying and campaign contributions, WTP took a new, increasingly prevalent tack — they skipped straight to the source. They hand-picked candidates, trained them on how to run, provided sophisticated campaign resources and attacked their opponents. In short they tried to fill the Legislature with their people with the whole process hidden from public view. And they were good at it.
The climax of the documentary is the trial of one of WTP’s legislators for illegal campaign coordination. I won’t print the spoiler here, but buckle up for some real-life courtroom drama.
The documentary has plenty of heroes in the fight against dark money, including a zealous special prosecutor who came out of retirement to help try the case and a former WTP employee turned whistleblower.
But investigative journalist John Adams is shown to be the heart and soul of the campaign against the use of dark money in Montana. Adams was the former capital bureau chief of the Great Falls Tribune before he was laid off.
Adams continued as an independent journalist monitoring state government to root out corruption. He eventually founded the Montana Free Press, an independent nonprofit news service much like WyoFile.
“The number-one rule of political watchdog reporting is follow the money,” said Adams in the film. “If I want the future generations to have access to the things that I value so much in Montana, then it’s going to require a strong, independent, fearless watchdog media to keep an eye on the people in power.”
There’s no better example of what Adams describes than the journalist himself. His relentless uncovering of state campaign finance law violations required many hours of digging through emails and other correspondence to show how groups like WTP — which later became the American Tradition Partnership — subvert what should be a transparent political process.
Wyoming should follow the examples of what is happening in Montana. In fact, efforts are already under way in the Equality State to fight Citizens United. Wyoming Promise, a group that includes former Republican U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, has joined other states to promote a ballot initiative called Free and Fair Elections to enact a 28th Amendment that would overturn Citizens United.
In a statement on the Wyoming Promise website, Simpson outlined why the ballot initiative is vital to our democracy.
“The Wyoming Constitution guarantees equal rights to ‘members of the human race.’ Corporations are not people, and therefore should not have any right to spend an unlimited glut of money to influence our elections,” Simpson wrote. “We must get this ‘dark money’ out of our political system by amending our Constitution to declare that corporations are not people and money is not speech.”
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), chairman of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, sponsored a bill earlier this year that would have required more transparency about who distributes election materials, but it was defeated. He’s indicated that he plans to introduce similar legislation next year.
To its credit, the Wyoming Mining Association denounced an organization calling itself Wyoming Friends of Coal that made calls throughout the state trying to influence the Republican gubernatorial primary.
“It is a rather shady and deceptive dark money outfit of Washington, D.C.,” WMA Executive Director Travis Deti said in a statement, “… the type of which has plagued our elections this year.”
Deti called the group’s action “garbage politics.” He’s absolutely right.
Such dark money groups threaten to undermine the very foundation of Wyoming politics and our democracy itself. While the press has a critical role in rooting out these outside organizations that disparage and lie about candidates’ records and beliefs, all voters should question the validity of mailers and broadcast ads that blast candidates in the final days of the campaign.
The chance such scurrilous attacks are from groups with no connection to Wyoming are high. It’s better to read and listen to the words that come from the candidates themselves than to vote based on material that comes out of nowhere.
In one of the most outrageous examples documented in PBS’s “Dark Money,” Montana GOP Rep. John Ward was doomed to defeat when a last-minute brochure comparing him to child killer John Wayne Gacy was distributed throughout his legislative district by a fictitious group named “Mothers Against Child Predators.”
“John Ward believes monsters [like Gacy] deserve to live,” according to the brochure. The former lawmaker said the attack came three days before the election and he had no time or money to respond.
When confronted by such material, Montana legislator Llew Jones said people need to ask, “Who’s paying for this? Do I know anybody in this group? What are they trying to buy?”
It’s sage advice for Wyoming voters.
CORRECTION: The Great Falls Tribune is owned by Gannett. An earlier version of this column incorrectly reported that the owner is Lee Enterprises.