"Dark Money." It sounds like something Lord Voldemort would use if he was looking to bounce Harry Potter from office, but it's the sort of cash magic that could end up making Connecticut's state and local political parties relevant again.
Local and state party organizations have been slip-sliding ever deeper into insignificance since the 1960s. Primaries, candidate-driven campaigns, hired-gun consultants, big special-interest contributors and self-funded political wannabes have all combined to emasculate party organizations.
"State parties across the country have been on the decline... for decades," says Roy Occhiogrosso, a Connecticut Democrat who helped orchestrate Dannel Malloy's victory in the 2010 race for governor.
Now we've come to a strange twist in the saga of "Citizens United." (That's the name of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has allowed special interest groups - corporations, unions, right- and left-wing political action committees - to spend unlimited amounts to influence campaigns.)
Connecticut Democrats, frightened about the potential impact of vast gobs of outside money, seized on party organizations as potential saviors. Legislation passed a few weeks ago by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly may give our political parties "a greater role in elections than they've had in decades," says state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney of New Haven.
Democrats decided to let state and local parties take in lots more money from big contributors, and to allow state party organizations to spend unlimited amounts to help candidates and counter opposition spending. That money would be on top of anything a party's candidate gets under Connecticut's public campaign financing system.
Exactly who will get to control these pots of party money isn't exactly clear. But it doesn't seem likely that state Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy DiNardo or Republican Party Chairman Jerry Labriola Jr. will get to return to the days when ruthless party kingpins dominated Connecticut's political landscape. Neither is exactly what you'd consider a power player in the state's lineup.
"This has the potential to make the parties stronger," says Occhiogrosso, "but I don't think we're going to go back to the days when the state parties controlled politics."
Election reformers like the League of Women Voters complain that the changes pushed through by Democrats will allow a flood of "dark money" from concealed special interest sources that could doom Connecticut's public campaign finance system. League President Cheryl Dunson warned the state is heading back "to the days of 'Corrupticut'."
The new party money rules will double the amount someone can give to the state parties, up to a max of $10,000. The revisions also eliminate the need to identify donors of less than $5,000, get rid of prison penalties for serious violations of election law, and allow some political contributors to hide the sources of their money, according to the League.
Public financing allocates tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money to candidates for state office who agree to certain spending limits and conditions. The idea was to prevent special interest money from influencing candidates and elections. The program was enacted in the wake of the scandals that ravaged Connecticut politics, sent ex-Gov. John G. Rowland to prison in 2004, and led to that nifty 'Corrupticut' nickname.
Democratic leaders like Looney and Malloy began to get real nervous that anyone who accepted public campaign financing (and the spending limits involved) wouldn't be able to respond to a rapid deluge of outside money working against them.
In 2012, for example, a conservative Greenwich billionaire named Thomas Peterffy and a few others decided to spew $500,000 into several of Connecticut's state Senate races to take out Democratic incumbents. The ploy failed and all the Democrats won, but it didn't make Democratic leaders any more comfortable.
In signing the Democrats' bill (not a single GOP lawmaker voted for it) into law, Malloy argued it was something that had to be done because of the Supremes' Citizens United bombshell of a decision.
Malloy is coming up for reelection next year and he could well be facing another challenge from Tom Foley, a millionaire who spent lots of his own cash before narrowly losing to Malloy in 2010. The Democratic incumbent could also be the target of conservative outsiders who might take exception to Malloy's penchant for dissing conservative causes and gun advocates.
All of which means Malloy would love to be able to have a big-money insurance policy backing up the $6 million he can get in public financing if he runs again – which is what everyone expects.
In the opinion of state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., the legislation changing the state's campaign financing system and the new money powers granted to state parties are all about next year's campaign.
"That entire bill was about the 2014 governor's race," Cafero insists.
He points out the Democrats control the governor's office, the legislature, all constitutional statewide offices and every one of Connecticut's congressional seats. It's the sort of political power that draws big political money from people wanting to do business with Connecticut government.
"The fundraising ability is magnified twenty-fold," Cafero says. "The money goes to the state party and everybody's fat and happy."
"We're going to play by the rules [the Democrats] just created," he says of Connecticut Republicans. "We'll do the best we can, but it will be nothing compared to what they'll be able to raise."
Cafero says it hasn't been decided yet just whose hand will be on the spigot of the state Republican Party's money pool.
Looney says the same about the Democratic side.
"I don't think there's been any meeting of the minds on that issue yet," he explains. Looney believes that everybody is going to want to have a say in how the money is handed out: the governor's campaign, legislative leaders, constitutional officers, even local party types.
"It's all going to be negotiated as we go along," says Looney, adding, "Some of it could be influenced by who is the most effective in raising additional money for the parties."
Cafero and other political observers are damned sure who will have the biggest say in controlling Democratic party dollars. "Everyone knows the governor is the titular head of that party," Cafero says. "As to who's calling the shots, it's Malloy... Dan Malloy, Dan Malloy, Dan Malloy."
"I think as titular head of the party, he has a lot of influence," Occhiogrosso says of Malloy. "As governor, he's been a strong figure… and he's taken a lot of interest in helping other Democrats get elected."
So Malloy may be looking to have the best of both worlds. He could accept public campaign financing and proclaim himself a champion of clean elections; and he could also direct lots of special interest contributions to the state party, which can then funnel that cash back to Malloy if he's facing big-spending opposition.
One longtime Connecticut Republican privately describes it this way: "He can claim virginity while still whoring out."
Kind of like what a lot of Connecticut politicians will be trying to do next year.
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