Political action committees, which typically represent labor or business concerns, have long shoveled money toward candidates. But in the past two years since Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to bribery charges, PACs and other interest groups have fallen out of favor with some politicians who want to maintain a squeaky clean image.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama swore off PAC support, and now two Colorado state legislative candidates, Democrats Lois Court and Joyce Foster, are doing the same, eschewing the support of interest groups in an effort to appear more populist. Paul Rosenthal, a former Democratic contender for the state House, took a similar pledge, but he lost in the primary election last month.
“You try to distinguish yourself as someone who is clean, a reformer, not someone who is bought and paid for by Jack Abramoff,” says Robert Duffy, chair of the political science department at Colorado State University.
“In some cases, not accepting PAC money can be an effective fundraising tool. It might be the case that PACs aren’t going to make contributions to you anyway, and that you are saying, ‘I’m not going to take PAC money.’ It still allows you to go ahead and point yourself as someone above suspicion and help you raise money from individuals. It has helped Obama. He has no shortage of cash.”
Court, who is running in Denver’s House District 6, a Democratic stronghold, says that her denunciation of PAC money was a “significant factor” in her three-way primary win and that it helped — not hampered — her ability to raise money. According to campaign finance reports, Court has reeled in around $68,000 so far, and has agreed to the state’s voluntary spending limit to shell out less than $68,900 on her campaign.
Court’s Republican contender in November’s general election, Joshua Sharf, has raised around $12,000. None of it is from PACs, though he hasn’t made a similar statement denouncing the committees.
Court, who teaches political science and government at Denver Community College and Red Rocks Community College, says she decided to go PAC-free when she saw how disillusioned her students were with the political process.
“To me, the entire process has been diverted from the public believing that they are part of the democratic system to thinking they are the observers of a special interest system,” she says. “I want my constituents, the public, the lobbyists and the interests groups to know that any decision that I make I am making because I think it is the best public policy in my district, not because someone influenced me with money or favors.”
Court, as well as Foster, who is running in Senate District 35, and Rosenthal, who launched a failed bid for House District 9, were all motivated by the Colorado king of the anti-PAC movement, Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon.
“I have been an advocate for reducing the influence of money and for other candidates to do the same thing,” says Gordon, who lost a bid two years ago for secretary of state and who is term-limited this year. Gordon says he’s rejected PAC money since he first ran for public office in 1992. “Candidates are concerned. They say, ‘How am I going to raise my money?’ And I say, ‘It will help you more than it will hurt you.'”
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office does not keep track of candidates who refuse PAC money. But Gordon says the no-PAC tack seems to have reached a high this year in Colorado with the three Democrats refusing special interest money. PACs in Colorado, which are referred to by the SOS as “small donor committees,” may give up to $2,125 to legislative candidates for the primary and general elections.
In spite of the benefits to refusing PAC dollars, taking the high road can be a bumpy ride. Rosenthal says that his stance caused him to lose the primary election, when his opponent, Joe Miklosi, brought in PAC money. Miklosi has raised more than $50,000 so far — more than $13,000 of it from PACs — while Rosenthal raised around $32,000.