Why I’ll keep defending my position on political action committees

I’m cranky — crankier than usual. I destroyed my left pectoral muscle last week, and, after more than a couple decades of telling men they can’t possibly understand how painful child labor is, I can unequivocally say that a serious pectoral injury is comparable to labor pains. Except labor pains don’t usually last longer than 24 hours.

Also last week, I did a post about Rep. Diane Russell’s “Working Families PAC,” which seems to have caused some folks more pain than my pec is causing me.

In the post I reviewed an article by Naomi Schalit of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. She found that Russell’s so-called leadership political action committee paid her almost 20 percent of its total expenditures for “online organizing,” while less than 4 percent went to support candidates. Other PAC spending went to “travel, food, fundraising, office expenses and a few other small categories.”

I’m worried that my response to some of that feedback might be less diplomatic than it would be if I were in less pain, but here goes.

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. (Troy Bennett | BDN)

Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland. (Troy Bennett | BDN)

One of the pieces of feedback I received was that Schalit’s article was not fair to Russell. I would encourage anyone who feels that way to take that concern up with Schalit.

I’ve received feedback that, while it’s relatively unique for a legislator to receive the level of payment she did from the PAC, her leadership PAC is but a small player compared to other leadership PACs, which is true. The problem with that line of thinking is, all PACs are a problem in my mind, not just Russell’s. I think all PACs should be illegal, big or small, because they allow too much money to flow into our political process.

The trail to the original contributors of PAC money can be hard to follow, which is why I also think it’s a non sequitur to suggest that there can be such a thing as “Clean Elections” as long as PACs exist. Further, I don’t understand how someone can be a “Clean Elections” candidate like Russell, or be a politician who supports the idea of getting money out of politics in general, while simultaneously running a leadership PAC.

To me, that’s like saying, “Outside money to get elected is bad, but outside money to maintain a position of power is good.” Tomato, Tom-ah-to.

In her article Schalit defines a leadership PAC:

A “leadership PAC” is a political action committee run by a current member of the legislature or, in rare cases, a former legislator, who aspires to a leadership position. Other lawmakers have used the money in their leadership PACs in support of fellow party members’ electoral ambitions, either directly or indirectly, such as through events.

One of the biggest problems with the PAC system is the financial inbreeding that makes it hard to trace the source of the contributors. For example, when I was looking at a quarterly report listing contributors to Russell’s “Working Families PAC,” I came across a contribution from the “Beck Political Fund” — another PAC. Who contributed to the Beck Political Fund?

Lots of special interest groups, that’s who. National interests such as Churchill Downs, Aetna Inc. PAC, American Insurers Association; and state interests such as the Maine Medical Association PAC, Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers, Fairpoint and more. A PAC that took money from the “Beck Political Fund” received it from these special interests.

In this regard, Russell is not alone in turning special interest money into clout through a PAC. A post on openmepolitic.com lists which legislators had active PACs in 2014 and the dollar value of those PACs that year. I would encourage readers to click here and check that list out. Some of the dollar figures, such as more than a half million dollars donated to Rep. Mark Eves’ House Democratic Campaign Committee, seem a bit extreme for Maine standards.

Last, but not least, and not for the first time since I’ve been blogging, I’ve received feedback that, as someone who advocates on behalf of marginalized populations, I should be more in line with the values of members of the Democratic Party and its PACs. I would encourage anyone who thinks that to ask why you think that way.

Just because Democrats say they care about the poor and the mentally ill, and otherwise disabled and minority populations, doesn’t mean that their policies and priorities will lead to improvements in the quality of life of the most vulnerable of these populations. How do I know this?

I derived this opinion from over two decades of personal and professional experience being a member of and working with fellow members of marginalized populations. It’s one thing to work with such populations, and it’s another to actually be one. Speaking as a member of the marginalized, there are some things we understand about the circumstances of our lives that most of the folks who work with us, or for us, don’t.

Speaking as a member of the marginalized, I have yet to hear much out of the mouths of any politician in the last 20 years regarding marginalized populations that makes me want to wholeheartedly endorse that leader’s ideas — on the state or national level. Further, were I to hear such things, I wouldn’t care whether those messages came from Republicans or Democrats. I would be so freaking grateful to hear such a message that the party affiliation of the messenger wouldn’t matter at all.

In generalized, over-simplified terms based on my opinions and experience, Democrats like to spend, spend, spend on programs deemed to uplift the marginalized, while Republicans like to cut, cut, cut spending on the marginalized. Neither party seems too concerned with whether the programs they are spending on or cutting spending on actually work. That’s why I am so excited about legislation put forth by Rep. Drew Gattine that seeks to begin program efficacy evaluation.

I’ve watched spending, spending, spending years pass by, and I’ve watched cutting, cutting, cutting years pass by. All the while I’ve watched the quality of life for marginalized populations stay the same, same, same or get worse, worse, worse, regardless of the spending or the cutting. Gattine’s bill is designed to break that cycle. Thus it earns my wholehearted support.

Or it will receive my wholehearted support as soon as I can draw in a whole breath without doubling over in pain.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.