Opposite sides of the campaign finance reform issue squared off in a debate that centered on a recent Supreme Court ruling and the “super PACs” that are playing a key role in this year’s national politics.
Today’s noon-hour debate featured former Colorado state Sen. Ken Gordon, who is working to keep big money out of politics, and Mario Nicolais, an attorney who recently won a case before the state Supreme Court that protected the ability of 527 political groups to donate money to campaigns.
About 35 people attended the event hosted by the School of Public Affairs.
Gordon said everyone should be granted equal power to have voice in the political process, not just those with the biggest megaphone — as in largest stash of cash — who end up on the airwaves. He ran for state office in 1992 without accepting special-interest contributions and now operates the nonprofit CleanSlateNow.org to continue working on the issue of campaign finance.
“I’m not against wealth,” Gordon said, “but I think that the interests from large corporations or unions or anyone who is a big contributor (to political campaigns) should make their case on their merits, not ‘Vote my way because I gave you money when you were running for office.'”
Gordon used the metaphor of a lion in a jungle to illustrate his point about restricting money in politics. Just because the lion is the largest and strongest doesn’t necessarily give him the right to eat anything in the jungle. Smaller animals should expect the lion to abide by rules of conduct to allow them an equal chance at survival. It becomes a matter of establishing equality in the system, he said.
“There are certain other values besides freedom we have to protect,” he said. In politics, “there still tends to be a big advantage to groups or people who have a lot of money. All of our rules about this tend to favor people and groups on the money side of the issue and tend to disfavor people and groups on the people side of things.”
From his perspective, Nicolais said, the issue is about engaging in a broader area of speech. “The more speech, the more messages people hear the better. That’s one of the things as Americans we’ve always believed in.”
He argued that the super political action committees (PACs) allow groups such as corporations and unions to exercise their First Amendment rights to free speech. For this reason, he supports the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows corporations and other groups to spend money on political ads.
At the ballot box, each voter has as much voice as any campaign contributor, Nicolais said. Also, as the system allows, people can pool their money to get their message heard in the political process. “Yes, corporations can spend money, but the point is the speech of individuals, as part of groups or associations, aren’t drowned out against a billionaire (contributor),” he said. A political contribution from an aggregate voice — such as a union, a nonprofit group or a corporation — “is of far greater value to a candidate than one individual writing a check,” he said.
Gordon was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1992 and has been one of the only Colorado politicians in recent history to refuse campaign contributions from PACs and other special interest groups. His CleanSlateNow.org supports candidates who refuse special interest PAC contributions.
Nicolais, a campaign finance and election law attorney with the Hackstaff Law Group, argued and won a case before the Colorado Supreme Court this year on behalf of the Senate Majority Fund and Colorado Leadership that 527 political groups should not be limited in how much money they get from donors if their ads don’t include words such as “vote for” or “elect.”
The audience asked questions after the debate. One woman said that while there’s strength in an aggregate voice, she said the stances of individuals within those groups sometimes get lost or ignored.
In reply, Nicolais said it’s incumbent upon those individuals “to keep fighting until you get your voice heard. That’s a cornerstone of our society. It’s the way it has to work to foster free speech.”
Gordon said, “I agree with that.”