Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Expecting better from our candidates

Those of you who follow me on various social networks know of my involvement in a Congressional race in my new Congressional district. In what the National Journal has called one of the most interesting races in the country, 40 year incumbent Pete Stark is being challenged by 31 year-old Dublin city councilman Eric Swalwell. I've been fortunate to get to know Eric over the last 9 months, and have found him to be one of the hardest working, most committed candidates I've met. (And I've worked with a few!)

While interesting, the race has also been disappointing. Congressman Stark, running for his 21st term in Congress, has lobbed unsubstantiated bribery accusations at Eric, has threatened the livelihood of a former supporter who now supports Eric, wrongly accused a reporter of contributing to Eric's campaign (he later blamed his 16 year-old son for the mistake), and refuses to debate Eric again because the press asks "stupid questions". Now that we're in the final 60 days of the campaign, Rep. Stark has taken to blatant misrepresentations of his own background in the hopes that he can eke out a final victory before retiring. We deserve better.

Last night, Rep. Stark's campaign posted this picture to Facebook:


It's the caption that strains credulity:
I was pleased to have the opportunity to address members of the Alameda County Democratic Lawyers Club and to express my long-standing opposition to Citizens United and big money in politics.
There are two claims in that paragraph: 1) he's been a long-standing opponent to Citizens United, and 2) that he's long opposed "big money" in politics.

In the same debate in which he accused Eric of accepting "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in bribe money (a claim he later had to rescind and apologize for), Rep. Stark was asked point blank whether he supported Citizens United or not. His answer:
"Corporations are treated as people, and they should... be... under the Constitution. The answer there is that if a corporation does something that a person could be prosecuted for, like Mr. Swalwell, if a corporation takes a bribe, the head of the corporation should be responsible criminally for that act, just as a person would be, so that every corporation must have an individual who is responsible and has to answer to the law for any crimes committed." (You can watch the debate here; this particular question comes up at 39:32 in the video.)
Setting aside the personal attack that he later admitted was without merit, let's look at Rep. Stark's answer. His answer affirms that corporations are people, which was a part of what Citizens United was actually about. (You can read Wikipedia's summary here; the entire Supreme Court opinion is here.) Citizens United addressed the question of whether corporations had the same First Amendment right to free speech that people do. In an article this spring, Slate explained the practical effect of Citizens United:
After Citizens United, the courts (most importantly in Speechnow.org v. FEC) and the FEC provided a green light for super PACs to collect unlimited sums from individuals, labor unions, and corporations for unlimited independent spending.
When someone asks a candidate whether they support Citizens United, they're asking whether the candidate believes that it's OK for "super PACs to collect unlimited sums... for unlimited independent spending." What Pete Stark said was, yes, corporations are people, which suggests that he's comfortable with the Supreme Court's reasoning. Hard to see any opposition to Citizens United whatsoever.

Which brings me to the second thing he said last night, where he spoke of his "long-standing opposition ... to big money in politics." I pulled the campaign contribution data from OpenSecrets.org for Rep. Stark, and the data tell a very different story than his Facebook post does. Going back to 1998, here are the amounts Rep. Stark took from PACs, broken down by campaign cycle:
2012: $330,141
2010: $436,700
2008: $615,035
2006: $315,689
2004: $285,470
2002: $307,127
2000: $297,923
1998: $203,967
Over that time, he took a total of nearly $2.8 million from PACs. Over the last 23 years (OpenSecrets does not contain finance data prior to 1989), Rep. Stark has taken just under $3.7 million, which represents more than 4x the money he took from individuals in the same time (contributions from individuals accounted for just 15% of all money received). Here's a graphical break-down of the money he's taken (again, taken from OpenSecrets.org):
I'll let you decide whether Rep. Stark's claim of "long-standing opposition" to "big money in politics" holds up. For me, Rep. Stark lost my vote long ago. This latest charade just reinforces my commitment to Eric Swalwell's campaign.

Full disclosure: I consider Eric Swalwell a friend, have donated money to his campaign, have knocked on doors for him, and periodically advise his campaign staff on various things related to technology. I wrote this post on my own without any input or assistance from the campaign.

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