There were no stories written about the most recent debate between the four Democratic contenders vying to succeed U.S. Rep. Peter Welch. That is unfortunate not only because the race is arguably the most pivotal in casting who may represent Vermont in Washington for years to come, but because there was a moment of truth in the debate, one that allows Vermonters to test the integrity of those who would choose to lead us.
That moment came when Lt. Gov. Molly Gray asked fellow challenger Becca Balint this question: “Already, over $53 million dollars in SUPER PAC money has poured into Democratic primaries across the country, mostly television ads. Bernie Sanders has said quote, 'SUPER PAC money is not welcome in Democratic primaries.' I’m with Bernie on this. Will you join me tonight in making two commitments? First, to publicly reject any outside groups spending in this primary? And, second, should any groups put up ads, joining me in a joint press conference the next day denouncing them and demanding the ads be taken down?”
Ms. Balint’s response was a single word: “Yes.”
The reason the exchange deserves our attention comes from a recent New York Times story titled: “The Little Red Boxes Making a Mockery of Campaign Finance Laws.” In sum, what is happening is that Democratic candidates across the nation have found a way to, as the Times story explains, “pioneer new frontiers in soliciting and directing money from friendly super PACs financed by multimillionaires, billionaires, and special-interest groups.”
Ms. Balint has one of these “little red boxes” on her website.
Why these little red boxes exist and how they work could easily be the overriding factor in Vermont's congressional primary race on August 9. There are four Democrats in the race with Ms. Gray and Ms. Balint considered the front runners. [They are joined by Louis Meyers and Sianay Chase Clifford.]
The differences between Ms. Gray and Ms. Balint on the issues are minimal, which means the advantage goes to the candidate who is most proficient in getting the message out to the greatest number of people most likely to vote, as often as possible. It means, in many cases, figuring out how to take down one’s opponent without the fingerprints. Both objectives require money. A lot of it. Which is a challenge in a small state like Vermont.
That’s where Ms. Balint’s little red box comes into play. By law, candidates cannot coordinate with super PACs. At any level. But the little red boxes are being used by Democratic candidates across the nation to skirt the law. What the candidates are doing is posting behind the little red box all the material a super PAC would need to do their own ads on behalf of the candidates. The candidates go so far as to write the scripts for the super PACs and the super PACs often regurgitate the campaigns’ scripts verbatim. The campaigns, Ms. Balint's included, even provide high resolution visuals.
Mr. Sanders is furious this practice is being employed for the same reason we all should be furious. This is a blatant effort to skirt the law and to encourage the very thing we find objectionable, which is the big-money influence in politics.
Candidates like Ms. Balint are often inclined to say nothing about these super PAC groups because they do the candidates’ dirty work for them. Ms. Balint can disavow them saying she has no power over what the super PACs do with their money. But this is not true. The campaigns are funneling the necessary information directly to the super PACs. If that were not the case, the campaigns would have no use for these little red boxes, as the New York Times story makes clear.
This secret “support” comes with a price. It’s a dead certainty the candidates who prevail will be reminded of the source of their support. When the time comes, the candidates, Ms. Balint for example, would be asked to return the super PACs favor.
The little red box on Ms. Balint’s website [https://www.beccabalint.com/meet-becca] is a perfect example of the warning put forth by the Times' article. The information behind Ms. Balint's little red box stresses the talking points the campaign would like the super PACs to advertise in support of Ms. Balint, and goes so far as to suggest weaknesses the super PACs could use to attack Ms. Gray. With less than eight weeks before the Aug. 9 primary, it’s expected we will see these super PAC ads begin to fill the airwaves and our mailboxes.
Will Ms. Balint join Ms. Gray each and every time the super PAC ads or mailings are identified? The odds are slim. Again, the expectation would be that she would simply note she has no control over what the super PACs say about her or her opponent. For those in the political bleachers, that will likely be enough. Most are not aware of campaign finance laws and most have come to expect candidates to follow the lowest common denominator behaviors. That is how most Americans define today’s political system. Sadly.
Vermonters should ask their candidates to hold to a higher standard. They can insist the real measure of any candidate is an unimpeachable sense of integrity, that Vermonters can trust them for who they are, and what they represent. Not what a super PAC tells them they will expect in return for their money.
For Ms. Balint that means taking the little red box down. For Vermonters, that is their moment of truth, it's their call for integrity.
by Emerson Lynn