Grassroots movement targets dark money in politics

Washington state chapter of Wolf-PAC supports Article V constitutional convention.

Back in 2019, when Anita Schumacher first heard of Wolf-PAC, she said her big issue was increasing voter rights. She wanted to see a nation where voter turnout was high, more than 90%.

That year, she learned that Wolf-PAC was active in Washington state, so she reached out and got in touch with organizers. The political action committee was founded in 2011 to amend the Constitution with the goal of addressing Citizens United.

“It was moving things in the way that I wanted to see,” she said.

Two years later, Schumacher serves as the Washington state chapter’s organizing director as they forge ahead trying to force an Article V constitutional convention to get dark money out of politics and challenge political spending by corporations that was unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling in 2010. It’s an issue that Schumacher said could make the government more responsive to the people and impact issues across the board, like political involvement.

“I was like ‘Wow,’ this could work,” she said. “Not only could this work, but it could restore the hope of people, and get people curious and active in their political communities, however small or large they are.”

Wolf-PAC was initially founded by Cenk Uygur, the host of the progressive political show The Young Turks, although members say the host and show have no influence on the organization.

During the 2021 session, the Washington state Senate considered Senate Joint Memorial (SJM) 8002, which calls for Congress to propose, pass and refer to the states an amendment regulating campaign contributions and independent expenditures; distinguish between people and corporations while preventing corporations from making campaign contributions; and requiring timely disclosure of all campaign contributions. If Congress doesn’t pass an amendment by November 2024, the motion calls for a Congressional convention.

It’s part of a political strategy by Wolf-PAC that would require two-thirds of of the states to pass resolutions calling for a constitutional convention to propose ways to reign in corporate spending. If the convention were to hash out a constitutional amendment, it would then have to be sent back to the states and approved by three-quarters of state Legislatures.

It’s one of two ways to add amendments to the Constitution. The other is by Congress proposing an amendment, and then sending it to be ratified by three-quarters of the states. But for Schumacher, that path seems unlikely in the current political climate.

“If you follow the money, they’re the source of the problem and not the solution,” she said of Congress.

According to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that tracks money in U.S. politics, between 2010 and 2020, political spending by wealthy individuals and corporations skyrocketed. This was facilitated not only by the Citizens United ruling, but by subsequent court decisions that removed several restrictions in campaign finance law.

In a 2020 report, OpenSecrets states that 10 wealthy donors and their spouses pumped $1.2 billion into federal elections over the last decade. They accounted for 7% of all election-related giving in 2018, up from less than 1% a decade prior.

Election spending from non-party groups increased to $4.5 billion over the last decade, vastly increasing from $750 million over the previous two decades. On top of this, groups that don’t disclose their donors contributed $963 million in outside spending over the last decade.

For Wolf-PAC members, it seems that the only way to get around the Supreme Court’s decision is to go to the source and amend the Constitution itself.

One of the most well-known instances of an Article V convention came in the early 1900s when Senators were still appointed by state Legislatures. A similar push was undertaken in the states, and when the campaign was one state shy of calling a convention, Congress finally acted and passed the 17th Amendment.

It’s a path that seems likely for Erin Bishop, with Wolf-PAC.

“I don’t think they’re going to do it right now, so we definitely have to keep up this pressure,” Bishop said.

Bishop pointed to the 2016 passage of I-735, which was approved by Washington state voters, and directed the Legislature to send a request to Congress to address campaign reform through a constitutional amendment. So far, that hasn’t happened.

In a way, Wolf-PAC can be viewed as a populist campaign. Populism has gotten a bad reputation in recent years in some liberal circles because it’s been tied to both the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. But Jeff Eidsness, Washington state director for Wolf-PAC, said what differentiates them from the Tea Party is grassroots bonafides.

Whereas the Tea Party was astroturfed by the Koch brothers and other large corporate interests, Eidsness said Wolf-PAC isn’t funded by corporations.

An examination of Wolf-PAC’s national contributions shows that most donors during 2020 gave far less than $1,000, with a few exceptions. The largest donor was a software engineer who donated $20,000 over the course of the year, and other large donors’ yearly contributions were generally less than $2,000.

Populism was born by the left-leaning People’s Party in the late 1800s, that championed small farmers and wage-earners in their struggle against banks and industrial corporations, the New York Times wrote.

Eidsness likened populism to a spatula, which can be used to make spaghetti — or hit people with.

“It’s just grassroots, we don’t have any big donors,” he said. “I just see it as the people getting what the people want, and what the people have earned.”

Action in Washington state

So far, five states have passed resolutions calling for a limited Article V convention, including California, Illinois, Vermont, New Jersey and Rhode Island.

In Washington state, SJM 8002 was introduced in the 2021 session and had a public hearing in the Senate Committee on State Government and Elections on Jan. 29. By the end of the session, it was stuck in the Rules Committee. But the Senate could take it up again next session.

“We’re hoping that because we do have a two year session, we’re not dead in the water,” Schumacher said. “We don’t have to refile, we are just stuck in Rules and could potentially get on to the floor next year.”

During its public hearing on Jan. 29, several members of Wolf-PAC spoke in support of the motion, which was sponsored by Sen. Patty Kuderer (D-48th Legislative District).

“This is indeed a national conversation. It will require a national response,” Kuderer said during the public hearing.

In an interview with this paper, Kuderer said she doesn’t see the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Citizens United decision any time soon. SJM 8002 came about as a merger between her bill and one proposed by Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11th Leg Dist).

Lawrence Lessig, professor at Harvard Law School, also spoke in support of SJM 8002. He cited the increase in spending by Super PACs, both on the federal and state level, including money coming into state elections from other parts of the country.

“Increasingly, legislators feel like they need to represent not just their own citizens, but the citizens that happen to come from out of state, places that want to spend large monies to affect or influence the campaigns,” Lessig said.

For a constitutional convention to be successful and enact an amendment, it will need bipartisan support, he said. And the convention can’t implement amendments. It can only suggest them before turning them over to Congress and later the states for approval.

Bipartisan support

Recent polls show that there is support from both Democrats and Republicans to reign in corporate spending in politics. One poll from Pew Research found that 77% of Americans think there should be limits on the amount of money individuals or groups can spend on campaigns. Nearly two-thirds of Americans think new laws could be written to reduce the role of money in politics.

Schumacher said Wolf-PAC is a nonpartisan organization. While a lot of members are progressives, they also have conservative members who want to see fiscal responsibility in campaign finances.

In conversations with her colleagues, Kuderer said there is bipartisan support for SJM 8002.

“This is one of those times where the public has been out ahead of their elected officials, and I think it is time for elected officians in every state and at the federal level to listen to the concerns of the citizens of this country,” Kuderer said.

During the public hearing, some people who testified said they were worried that a convention could take on a life of its own and add amendments and implement them outside of Congress or the states. Lessig said there was no chance of this happening, as states can choose not to ratify the amendment and kill the process.

Those who testified against the amendment include longtime initiative-pusher Tim Eyman, who was concerned about potential restrictions on ballot measures, and Sandra Belzer of the Republican Liberty Caucus, who voiced concern about a runaway convention.

Stephen Richter of the now-obscure John Birch Society, which was purged from mainstream Republican circles during the 1960s by William F. Buckley, also spoke against SJM 8002.

“There are enemies of freedom that will try and take control of the process,” Richter said during the public hearing.

While the motion stalled this year, Schumacher thinks there’s a good chance of it passing in 2022.

“I can see this either happening this session, or within the next session,” she said.