The five announced Democratic candidates running to succeed Senator-elect Ed Markey in the Fifth Congressional district will likely agree much more than disagree regarding positions on most major issues. Therefore, voters will have to dig deeper for policy distinctions between the candidates.
Unfortunately for State Senator Will Brownsberger, his campaign may be the first casualty of the process of elimination in determining which candidate will best serve as the Democratic nominee and eventual Congressperson in MA-5. Further, Brownsberger’s blunder seems to be the result of his own ham-handed political posturing backfiring on him coupled with his support for an extremely unpopular policy.
Brownsberger called on his fellow Democrats in the primary to join him in signing a souped-up People’s Pledge, one that not only penalizes candidates for outside spending on their behalf but also takes the step of limiting certain contributions:
Brownsberger is also asking his opponents to shun any direct campaign contributions from political action committees and lobbyists, whether they operate at the state or federal level.
“I am urging my competition in this race to do as I’ve done, which is to live by my principles, refusing money that has no place in Massachusetts elections,” Brownsberger said. “Money has become a deeply corrupting force in politics, when the focus should be on tackling the hard issues.”
First off, Brownsberger is stretching the truth a bit when praising his own standards, as he has been willing to accept lobbyist contributions in the past:
Brownsberger has not always shunned lobbyists [sic] contributions — making an exception, through 2011, for any lobbyist who was a constituent. His campaign said he stopped the practice last year.
Much more importantly, though, this “principle” to which Brownsberger refers is absent when it comes to his legislative (in)action and political philosophy:
Brownsberger has not always taken the orthodox campaign finance reform position.
Last summer, he was the only state senator to vote against a resolution calling for a repeal of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which helped clear the way for corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums in political campaigns.
Brownsberger wrote, in a blog post, that he supports the Citizens United decision on free speech grounds.
Brownsberger seemingly does nothing to reassure voters in his conversation with Boston Magazine’s David S. Bernstein:
On Monday, I had been all prepared to mock Brownsberger for his ULTRA-Pledge, which I think is unworkable, holier-than-thou, and pretty much seems designed not to lead to a deal but to allow him to beat up the other candidates for being less pure.
But instead, I got on the phone this afternoon and had a long conversation with Brownsberger to discuss his views on Citizens United and campaign finance law. His views are nuanced, which does him no good at all. On the resolution, he says that the hyperbolic call to save our democracy from the tyrannical Supreme Court carries serious risk of overreach, endangering very real first-amendment rights in the process—which would be easy to agree with, if this resolution were likely to actually somehow lead to actual passage of a Constitutional Amendment.
In his own blog post, Brownsberger derides legislative efforts to address the corrosive Citizens United decision as nothing more than “well-intentioned efforts to tinker with the First Amendment.” Giving Bernstein the pejorative impression that Brownsberger believes that activists’ and legislators’ work on the matter represents nothing more than a (mockingly-toned) “hyperbolic call to save our democracy” certainly does nothing to convey to voters that he appreciates the problem.
So what is the problem? The Citizens United decision has, in no small part, helped fuel situations like this:
Sheldon Adelson Spent $150 Million on Election
Only a third of the casino billionaire’s contributions were reported to the FEC
Sheldon Adelson didn’t spend the $100 million he promised he would to beat President Barack Obama this cycle. He didn’t spend the $54 million he reported to the Federal Election Commission.
The casino billionaire spent around $150 million this election, according to Peter Stone of The Huffington Post. […]
Altogether Adelson spent twice as much secretly as he did publicly through big donations to the super PACs of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, among others.
To put that in perspective, as though putting it in perspective was necessary:
As a point of comparison, the 2004 general election campaigns of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry combined to spend less than $150 million.
A single individual’s ability to spend effectively unlimited sums on a single election represents neither a healthy exercise of free speech nor an indicator of a well-functioning democracy. A single individual’s ability to spend effectively unlimited sums on a single election actively harms, overwhelms, and undermines everyone else’s First Amendment-protected free speech. One individual’s (or a small number of individuals’) ability to singularly dominate the national conversation turns free speech into a buyable commodity that can be monopolized.
When 1% of 1% (or 0.0001, or one-ten-thousandth) of the U.S. population accounts for about one-quarter of all political contributions in America, making it easier still for fewer individuals to corner the market on political speech and monopolize political discourse corrodes our democracy and represents an undeniable perversion of our First Amendment-protected free speech.
Disappointingly, Will Brownsberger disagrees. In supporting the Citizens United decision, Brownsberger is proclaiming his apparent belief that Sheldon Adelson (or any individual of any political ideology) spending more on a single political campaign than the Bush & Kerry Presidential campaigns combined spent in all of the 2004 general election (while Adelson only reported about one-third of his spending to the FEC, to boot) is perfectly defensible under his (and Antonin Scalia’s) interpretation of the First Amendment.
For those looking to “tinker with the First Amendment,” as Brownsberger derisively put it, he suggested a solution (charitably worded) of sorts to Bernstein:
Brownsberger contends that the way to really get the pernicious influence of money out of politics is for voters to choose candidates who personally abide by self-regulating rules to not accept contributions from those who would have business before them in office. ”It’s not a legal system fix that’s needed, it’s an integrity fix,” he said.
Self-regulating rules, huh? Put all politicians, all candidates for office, on the honor system? How about, instead of hoping that all candidates for office pinky-swear to be on their best behavior, we just have our legislators pass a law that protects free speech by preventing a small group of individuals from effectively monopolizing it (with diminished public reporting requirements, to boot)? Not to mention, how could voters know for sure which candidates honorably “personally abide by self-regulating rules” if a mega-donor funds countless misleading ads about the candidates in a race, leading to a misinformed electorate?
In a field with few distinctions to begin with, Will Brownsberger’s position against legislating a solution to the dysfunction caused by the Citizens United decision may prevent him from legislating anything in Congress if voters of the Fifth Congressional district see Brownsberger’s support for the Citizens United decision as an important – and disqualifying – distinction. Further, Brownsberger’s willingness to politically posture on the People’s Pledge despite his support for the Citizens United decision seems rather disingenuous and certainly fails the smell test.
Disclosure: The author of this post is a constituent of one of Brownsberger’s primary opponents (Katherine Clark), a former constituent of another of Brownsberger’s primary opponents (Carl Sciortino), and a former State House staff member of another of Brownsberger’s primary opponents (Karen Spilka), though the author remains neutral in the primary.