DU citizen panel wades into campaign-finance swamplands

DENVER– The University of Denver’s “strategic issues panel of accomplished citizens” tasked with examining campaign finance regulations and making recommendations on how to improve those regulations or their enforcement got a dose of the miserably complicated task ahead of them Wednesday.

The panel is leaning partly on a series of presentations set to run through January featuring experts on a wide range of related topics.

Wednesday, in a four-hour blitz of Power Point presentations, white board scribblings and graph-riddled handouts, kick-off speakers Secretary of State Scott Gessler, high-profile Colorado election law attorney Mark Grueskin and state Republican Party Chair Ryan Call welcomed the panelists to a dizzying world of many-tiered contribution limits, long lists of varying political committees, myriad disclosure rules, types of free speech, including individual speech, associational speech, electioneering speech and express advocacy speech. They talked about magic words, corruption and the appearance of corruption, federal versus state versus local and home rule campaign finance regimes, incumbency advantages, non-incumbency advantages and/or disadvantages and so on.

“I just don’t know,” one panelist said, shaking his head in the hallway outside the small conference room at the university’s business school where the presentations had just wrapped up. “I came in here, you know, with some ideas about all this, but now I don’t know what I think.”

The roughly twenty members of the panel will hear something like nine more presentations and deliver their analysis and recommendations in the summer. Upcoming presenters include former Colorado Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, Common Cause President Bob Edgar and National Conference on State Legislatures Analyst Jennie Bowser.

Despite their openly different feelings about the strengths and weaknesses of current campaign fiance law, Wednesday’s presenters agreed that, in its deliberations, the panel should place the responsibility to guard free speech above all other considerations.

Grueskin anticipated the panelists would feel an impulse to restrict spending and limit advertising. He said political speech can be negative, deceitful and annoying, a sentiment that drew nods of agreement all around, falling as it did on the ears of a room packed with swing-state voters who for the last six months had been deluged with campaign ads.

“But who will decide which speech is OK and which is not? No one person can decide that and no one should.”

Far from being cynical about the topic, all three men encouraged reform while also embracing, even championing, the messy and increasingly expensive combat that is contemporary U.S. electoral politics.

Gessler, an attorney for conservative clients before winning office and an unabashedly partisan and controversial officeholder, advised the panel to recommend stripping away regulations. He said it should be clear to all that no rules will stop money from flowing into campaigns. The object should be to in effect throw the doors open, he said, to loosen up the system so relatively unencumbered candidates could once again react to realtime events. Free from the need to build donor bases four years in advance of a primary election, for example, they could ride into races on a wave of relevancy.

“We’ve lost the dynamic way politics used to be able to respond to things,” he said, comparing the 1968 presidential candidacy of Eugene McCarthy to the recent candidacy of Texas Governor Rick Perry. McCarthy entered the race against Pres. Lyndon Johnson in March of that election year, almost unthinkable now. But Johnson was weak, dogged by large-scale civil rights unrest and the catastrophe of the Vietnam War, and fundraising was much more straightforward at the time, Gessler argued. McCarthy seized the opportunity and won the New Hampshire primary. Sitting president Johnson bowed out of the race.

“When Rick Perry entered this year’s election in June of 2011… all I thought was: ‘Too late!'”

Gessler said that, in the two years he’s been in office, he has knocked down contributor disclosure filing fines considerably, an effort to ease anxieties that might chill participation.

Grueskin has represented major progressive clients and causes over the years and has often argued against Gessler in campaign finance cases. Yet he also embraced the expensive political reality that he said dedication to free speech seems to engender today.

“The Secretary and I are not that far apart on some of these issues– not all of them, but some of them,” he said.

He said he believed that contribution limits matter but he stressed the need for loophole-free, well-enforced disclosure rules.

Money moves like water around rocks in a river, which is OK, he said, if voters can readily and confidently identify the source of the cash.

“I believe in the voters,” he said.

The full lineup of the DU panel is listed online at the Strategic Issues Program website. Members include former Colorado Rep. Polly Baca, Girl Scouts of Colorado CEO Stephanie Foote, Children’s Hospital and University of Colorado School of Medicine Doctor Emeritus John Morrison, Chairmen in investment banking at FMI Corp Hugh Rice, Robinson Dairy CEO Dick Robinson, National Cable Television Association former CEO June Travis and Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center Director Stephanie Villafuerte.

[ Image: Screengrab of Secretary of State Scott Gessler. ]