Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Cost Of Free Speech

I frequently like to compare events in Minnesota with events in New Jersey, since the two states are both blue states with red governors.

My most recent comparison pertains to the right's efforts to exploit the corporate free speech rights recently delineated by the Supreme Court in Citizens United v. FCC. These efforts are taking the form of independent organizations which solicit corporate donations in support of issues and/ or candidates. Frequently, these organizations are headed by current or former members of a particular organization.

For example, former George W. Bush White House Deputy Secretary of Labor Steven Law is president of a tax exempt group named American Crossroads. Advisors to this group include Karl Rove, former George W. Bush chief of staff and campaign advisor, and Ed Gillespie, Republican National Convention chairman during Bush's presidency.

In New Jersey, since the election of Chris Christie, a new tax exempt organization has started collecting and spending money in support of the Governor's agenda -- Reform Jersey Now. There is a high degree of crossover between the Christie administration and this political advocacy organization. For example, the treasurer of Christie's gubernatorial campaign, John Gravino, is also the treasurer of Reform Jersey Now. Former Christie campaign advisor and current Christie strategist Mike DuHaime is a spokesman for the group. Former Republican Governors Christie Todd Whitman and Donald DiFrancesco are advisors to the group, as is Christie advisor Bill Palatucci. Governor Christie himself was the keynote speaker at an event sponsored by Reform Jersey Now and organized by Ken Langone, the founder of Home Depot.

While it's clear that there is significant overlap among the State Republican party, the Christie administration and Reform Jersey Now, what is not clear is the identity of the donors to the group. State law does not require such disclosure. In the face of pressure from Democrats and from the press, DuHaime has promised to make such disclosure by the end of the year.

For its part, Minnesota has MN Forward, a pro-business political action committee managed by Brian McClung. McClung stepped down from his position as Minnesota Governor Pawlenty's spokesman to run the group. MN Forward claims to be a bi-partisan organization supporting pro-business candidates. It is not a tax exempt organization.

One big difference between Reform Jersey Now and MN Forward is that, under Minnesota law, MN Forward is required to disclose its donors. Thus, it is public knowledge that MN Forward's single largest contributor is Target, which contributed $150,000. Electronics retailer Best Buy donated $100,000.

And when MN Forward gave money to gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, Target found itself in an uncomfortable position. Emmer is pro-business, but he is also adamantly against gay marriage and pro-life. Target's customer base is decidedly progressive.

When news of Target's connection to Emmer became public, Target found its Minnesota headquarters to be the focus of demonstrations. A planned expansion into the San Francisco area may now be in jeopardy.

Target and Best Buy are now in negotiation with the Human Rights Campaign about making donations to progressive candidates, to offset their donations to MN Forward. Which means the companies may find themselves targeted by activists on the right.

All of which has brought a fresh layer of interest in the donors of Reform Jersey Now. It can't be long before State Senator Loretta Weinberg makes the connection between Governor Christie's veto of funding for women's health programs and Reform Jersey Now supporter Ken Langone, who was made a Knight of St. Gregory by Pope Benedict XVI. Or the NJEA and other public employee unions make the connection between Langone and Christie's anti-union agenda. All of which could make life interesting for New York University and Bucknell University, both recipients of largess from alumna Langone. Students tend to be pro-choice and pro-union, and NYU and Bucknell students may well be interested in the political positions of their schools' benefactor.

If DuHaime is good to his word and Reform Jersey Now donors are disclosed by the end of the year, there may be many companies in New Jersey who get to find out the true cost of free speech.

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