End Citizens United: Reform Group or Cash Cow?

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP Images

In March of last year, a new organization with the arguably misleading name of End Citizens United began bombarding progressive donors with high-pressure fundraising emails tailor made to exploit grassroots passions over the toxic influence of corporate and billionaire money on elections.

“Will you donate $3 or more to support our work toward reforming our campaign finance system and ultimately overturning Citizens United?” read one of the dozens of fundraising emails that has hit my inbox. End Citizens United is “dedicated to countering the disastrous effects of Citizens United and reforming our campaign finance system,” declares the group’s website.

But despite such lofty rhetoric, the group has done virtually nothing to actually promote a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that deregulated political spending. Instead, the group is strictly a political action committee that has raised $6.8 million thanks to heavy spending on list rentals and fundraising overhead.

All but 10 percent of the $3.2 million that the group has spent so far in this election cycle has gone into operating expenditures, public records show. And even the $395,000 or so that End Citizens United has given out to candidates has gone to Democratic hopefuls not exactly known for their progressive credentials. Some campaign reform champions, such as Wisconsin Democrat Russell Feingold, who is seeking to regain his former Senate seat, and scholar and activist Zephyr Teachout, who is running for Congress in New York, have received endorsements from End Citizens United. But so have a long list of moderate and business-friendly Democrats, including three members of the Blue Dog Coalition that represents the most conservative Democrats on Capitol Hill.

All this has left a bad taste in the mouths of progressive organizers. End Citizens United employs rhetoric similar to that of Bernie Sanders and of such legitimate activist organizations as People for the American Way and of Public Citizen, on whose board I sit. But the group is run by a team of Democratic operatives, and backs 12 of the 13 House Democrats identified as “front line” priorities in 2016 by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“They're co-opting the momentum and excitement for our movement to fundraise for candidates who may or may not even support amending the Constitution to ‘end Citizens United’ and who certainly have shown no leadership in addressing the even more root issue of corporate constitutional rights,” wrote Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, national director of the Move to Amend Coalition, in a blog post last year. Author and longtime progressive activist Jim Hightower, who also sits on Public Citizen’s board, is more blunt about End Citizen’s United, telling me: “It’s a fraud.”

The PAC’s organizers counter that they have built an “unprecedented grassroots network” to illustrate the damage that the Citizens United ruling has done in American elections. The group raised $12,000 on behalf of a successful ballot initiative in Maine to restore public financing there, and deployed staff and volunteers to help with that effort, said Reed Adamson a senior adviser to the PAC. He pointed to polling the group has done to demonstrate the issue’s importance to voters, and to research by the PAC to shed light on undisclosed political spending. The PAC has set out to restore Democrats to power on Capitol Hill, Adamson said, which means backing Democrats who may be vulnerable or who are positioned to take over a GOP seat.

“Our mission is to end the rigged campaign-finance system by defeating Republicans in Congress who block meaningful reform at every turn, and replacing them with Democrats who will work to end the unlimited and undisclosed money corrupting our democracy,” Adamson said in an email.

The group’s organizers include political director Jessica Adair, a former Colorado organizer for Obama for America, and senior advisers Valerie Martin and Adamson. Martin has worked for the strategic and communications consulting firm AL Media, and Adamson is co-founder of the communications consulting firm Silversmith Strategies, which has received $155,000 in video production and consulting fees from End Citizens United, FEC records show.

Liberal blogger Howie Klein, for one, smells a rat. The End Citizens United website “looks like a phishing operation to collect email addresses for partisan Democratic Party operations” like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, wrote Klein on his “Down with Tyranny” website.

The DCCC has aroused suspicion in progressive circles ever since former California Congressmen Tony Coelho took it over at the beginning of the Reagan era and began cultivating corporate donors with “business friendly” positions at the expense of labor unions.

Coelho’s successor Rahm Emanuel and the DCCC current chairman, House Democrat Ben Rey Lujan, of New Mexico, have perpetuated Coelho’s corporate bias.

The DCCC’s “front line” candidates, almost all of them backed by End Citizens United, have in many cases backed Republican efforts to weaken financial reform. House Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, of Arizona, is an End Citizens United beneficiary who has pulled in roughly $895,000 in donations from the financial industry since 2012. She voted with Republicans for a bill with the Orwellian title of “The Promoting Job Creation and Reducing Small Business Burdens Act,” which was designed to weaken the Dodd-Frank bill. Other House Democrats who voted for the bill and have End Citizens United’s endorsement include New York’s Sean Patrick Maloney; Maryland’s John Delaney; Ami Bera and Julia Brownley, both of California; and Florida’s Patrick Murphy.

Delaney wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post that supported the so-called chained Consumer Price Index scheme backed by many Republicans that would have depressed Social Security benefits. In another op-ed Delaney denounced congressional progressives who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Indeed, End Citizens United’s favorite candidates appear to be those associated with the faction in the Democratic Party that frequently opposes progressives and aligns with Republicans, especially on the economic issues where billionaire campaign donors are most engaged. Among the few dozen members of Congress whom End Citizens United backs are Nebraska’s Brad Ashford, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, and Cheri Bustos, of Illinois—all members of the Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats.

End Citizens United’s aggressive fundraising emails include multiple “polls” and “petitions” that create the illusion of engagement but that are really designed to get more personal information about potential donors. One “poll” harangued me, when I failed to respond, in the style of a bill collector:

“DANIEL GOLDBERG

PARTICPENT ID 1382853

ZIP CODE 10014

STATUS: 0% COMPLETE

We’ve been asking you to take 1 minute to complete our Presidential Campaign Questionnaire. But so far it looks like you haven’t had a chance to respond.” 

In bright red letters the email chastised me, “46,332 people have taken this poll. But Daniel it looks like you’re not one of them.”

End Citizens United has spent some $300,000 on list rentals from such sources as John Hlinko Consulting, Rising Tide Interactive, and from progressive publications, including The Nation, Mother Jones, and The American Prospect, FEC records show. Although End Citizens United trumpets the word “transparency,” it is difficult to figure out who they really are. The “About Us” section of the group’s website lists staff members but no Board of Directors.

If ECU wants to make the case that fielding so-called moderates is the best way to defeat right-wing extremists, it should do so in a straightforward fashion. Instead its organizers are dressing up their agenda with the messaging of the movement to overturn Citizens United. I’m not buying it—which means I’ll probably be getting a lot more messages like this one:

“Alert! No donation on record for Daniel Goldberg. We have just $97,274 to go before we hit our astounding grassroots goal of $5,000,000. Daniel we want to be able to say you were with us from the beginning, But as of 12:21 pm we don’t see any contributions associated with your record.”

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