a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Free speech for Me, Inc. but not for thee – the second Feingold-Johnson debate

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th October 2010

Feingold-Johnson debate, 10/12/10, via

To be honest, it’s rare that a political debate is even mildly interesting.

But last night’s showdown between Senator Russ Feingold and challenger Ron Johnson was just that — and for about fifteen riveting minutes towards the end of the debate, it was electrifying.

The debate was the second one between Feingold and Johnson.  The debate format this time allowed for more give and take between the two — which turned out to be a distinct disadvantage for the Republican candidate, who seemed befuddled at times by Feingold’s sharp questioning.  I’ve added my transcript of selected excerpts to an ongoing record and have posted that online.

Johnson was ready with prepared statements about deficits he blamed on Democrats, and about health care reform he wished had been done piecemeal if at all.  While I think Feingold made a lot more sense on those issues, I didn’t sense that he was finding major openings in Johnson’s armor, or overcoming the Republican’s formidable “folksy millionaire” appeal: a kind of kinder, gentler Ross Perot.

But around the thirty-eighth minute, Johnson — ahead in the polls, with millions of his own money at his disposal, and millions more fighting his battles for him via Americans for Progress ads and the like –suddenly felt a need to land a sharp jab in the midst of a discussion about Afghanistan.  By my scoring, he shouldn’t have:

Johnson (38:58): I would like to ask you, why didn’t you vote — you were one of I think only 25 Senators who refused to vote for the resolution to condemning your supporting group,, when they placed I thought a very shameful ad in the New York Times that talked about General Petraeus.  Why didn’t you vote to condemn that act?

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“If you don’t live here, it’s none of your business”

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd August 2010

A closer look at Rand Paul’s campaign contributors

In The Fall and Rise of Rand Paul (Jonathan Miller, Details Magazine), Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul reveals appalling ignorance about the environmental calamity of mountaintop removal mining (MTR):

“I think they should name it something better,” he says. “The top ends up flatter, but we’re not talking about Mount Everest. We’re talking about these little knobby hills that are everywhere out here. And I’ve seen the reclaimed lands. One of them is 800 acres, with a sports complex on it, elk roaming, covered in grass.” Most people, he continues, “would say the land is of enhanced value, because now you can build on it.”

“Let’s let you decide what to do with your land,” he says. “Really, it’s a private-property issue.”

…something between indifference and diffidence about the role corporate wrongdoing played in the Big Branch mine disaster earlier this year:

“Is there a certain amount of accidents and unfortunate things that do happen, no matter what the regulations are?” Paul says at the Harlan Center, in response to a question about the Big Branch disaster. “The bottom line is I’m not an expert, so don’t give me the power in Washington to be making rules. You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You’d try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don’t, I’m thinking that no one will apply for those jobs. I know that doesn’t sound…” Here he stumbles, trying to parse his words properly but only presaging his campaign misstep. “I want to be compassionate,” he concludes, “and I’m sorry for what happened, but I wonder: Was it just an accident?”

…and some astonishing ignorance about the state he hopes to represent as a Senator:

Rand Paul and I are trying to remember why Harlan, Kentucky might be famous. That’s where Paul is driving me, on a coiling back road through the low green mountains of the state’s southeastern corner, in his big black GMC Yukon festooned with RON PAUL 2008 and RAND PAUL 2010 stickers. Something about Harlan has lodged itself in my brain the way a shard of barbecue gets stuck in one’s teeth, and I’ve asked Paul for help. “I don’t know,” he says in an elusive accent that’s not quite southern and not quite not-southern. The town of Hazard is nearby, he notes: “It’s famous for, like, The Dukes of Hazzard.” (links added)

But it’s the way he summed up his libertarian purism for a meeting in Harlan, Kentucky that I’d like to focus on particularly.  Again, it was in reference to mountaintop removal; here’s how Nola Sizemore of the Harlan Daily Enterprise reported his remarks:

I think some of these people complaining about [mountaintop removal] need to come and take a look at it. I say, if you don’t live here, it’s none of your business. Ask the people who live here about it.

Paul said he can’t see why residents of Louisville and Lexington should have any say in what people do with their land in other areas. He said he hadn’t heard any complaints from people who live here. (emphasis added)

Maybe because the ones who are against MTR know it’s a waste of time showing up at your events, Mr. Paul.  At any rate, they’d be right to suspect he doesn’t think it’s any of their business either, once they got a look at where his campaign contributions are coming from.  As Greg Skilling of the Louisville Independent Examiner puts it,

“Rand Paul believes almost everything should be handled at the state and local level – everything except for campaign fundraising.  A quick look at Federal Election Commission (FEC) reports filed by Rand Paul’s campaign and it becomes immediately clear that Kentuckians are vastly outnumbered on the donor list by people who live outside the Bluegrass State. Like his father Ron, Rand Paul has used the Internet to successfully solicit out-of-state campaign contributions from individuals.

Skilling identifies out-of-state PAC contributions from Sarah Palin’s PAC, Duke Energy, and the like, but left his analysis at “vastly outnumbered.”  So I had a closer look at those FEC reports, and specifically at the breakout of individual vs. committee and in-state versus out-of-state contributions.  The resulting summary sheet can be seen here.*

The upshot: over 76% of all contributions to Rand Paul’s Senate campaign — nearly 75% of individual contributions and nearly 92% of political action committee contributions —  are from out of state.  Those donors don’t live in Kentucky either, but I guess Rand Paul figures it’s their business anyway who should be its next senator.  Or maybe he doesn’t, but takes their silver anyway:

Unamuno’s “San Manuel Bueno, Mártir” is, he says, “a great short story. It’s about a priest who doesn’t really believe in God but feels he needs to protect his parishioners from this disbelief, that it’s too much for them.” This calls to mind another favorite story of Paul’s, Somerset Maugham’s “Rain.” “Once again about a conflicted priest,” he says. Priests in a crisis of faith, I point out, appears to be a theme with him. Lightly, he says, “I went to a Baptist college. I had to have an outlet.”

There’s something especially galling about so-called libertarian candidates who — whodathunkit? — wind up consistently protecting the interests of big business in the guise of protecting local control or individual rights.

Do I have a problem with out of state contributions to a Senate candidate?  Of course not — I do it myself all the time.  But I don’t go around saying “if you don’t live here, it’s none of your business” either.  I know people in other states who have to work in unsafe mines or live downstream from MTR runoff need help from individuals like me, and from the federal government, if they’re to have a chance against well-financed corporations — and their glib spokesmen like Rand Paul.

* I can send the full workbook to readers on request. In a nutshell, the FEC data must be copied in pieces and pasted to an Excel workbook as HTML. Functions of the form “=IF(MID($B21,1,2)=”KY”,$D20,0)” then isolate the two-letter state designation for individual contributions, and tally the contributor or his/her dollar contribution to a new column — “KY” (Kentucky) or “elsewhere”. Addresses were not provided in the initial committee tallies, but there were few enough that I could find the home state of each committee “by hand.”

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RAGA followup

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th July 2003

Newspapers around the country followed up on the Washington Post story that I mentioned yesterday: a Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) fundraising group that allegedly “telephoned corporations or trade groups subject to lawsuits or regulations by their state governments to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.”

Basically — surprise — everybody denied doing anything shady. It’s part of the genius of the method Pryor dreamed up that the contributions were forwarded to the Republican National Committee without attribution to the AG’s involved, so that determining their involvement with a particular donation is next to impossible.

Anyhow, here are excerpts from the newspaper stories:

  • Ohio: The Cleveland Plain Dealer‘s T.C. Brown reports:

    [Former Attorney General Betty Montgomery] dropped out of RAGA several months after joining the group in late 1999. Montgomery attended one donor meeting in October 1999 at Kiawah Island Resort, S.C. She was identified as a solicitor and given an assigned list of 10 organizations to contact, but she said she made no solicitation calls.

    “I was not comfortable with being asked to solicit money,” Montgomery said yesterday. “I just wasn’t comfortable with some of the people we were going to be soliciting or comfortable with the whole theory.”

    That sounds pretty genuine, and I’m more willing to give Montgomery the benefit of the doubt than the other AGs. Current AG Jim Petro, on the other hand, is a RAGA member who is comfortable with the “whole theory,” but says he’s been good:

    “I’ve had discussions or made a few phone calls to companies that care a great deal about policy making,” Petro said. “I have not solicited where there is a conflict or appearance of impropriety.”

    But he declined to identify the corporations.

  • Delaware: Dover Newszap‘s Joe Rogalsky reports Attorney General Brady’s response:

    “I do not think anybody believes I am not going to do what is right because I received a contribution from someone. I screen all contributions to make sure there is no conflict.”

    For example, Ms. Brady said, she did not accept contributions from BlueCross BlueShield when her office was evaluating a proposed business transaction involving Delaware’s BCBS franchise.

  • Texas: The Dallas Morning News reports that Senator John Cornyn is more combative. Todd Gillman writes:

    Sen. John Cornyn angrily accused Democrats on Thursday of trying to “smear” Alabama’s top lawyer – a federal appeals court nominee – with questions about the fund-raising tactics of a Republican attorneys general group Mr. Cornyn once helped lead. […]

    Mr. Cornyn said he would never have sought money from anyone with pending litigation or regulatory issues he might have to handle. “I have no memory of making those calls, and to the best of my knowledge I’ve never even seen those [call] lists,” he said.

    Some companies on Mr. Cornyn’s list do show up on GOP donor records. Plano-based Rent-a-Center, for instance, gave $177,600 in 2000 and 2002; it also gave $50,000 to Democrats.

    I had to wonder what “he might have to handle” meant: Cornyn personally? Or the Texas Attorney General’s office as a whole?

  • South Carolina: The Charleston Post and Courier gives the Washington Post the byline to a brief article including former S.C. Attorney General Charles Condon’s position:

    Condon defended the group late Wednesday, saying its goal was to elect more Republican attorneys general and to support free enterprise by trying to ensure that courts aren’t used to make laws.

  • Virginia: No followups yet to the news about former Attorney General Mark Earley’s fundraising on behalf of RAGA. The Washington Post‘s R. Jeffrey Smith and Tania Branigan wrote yesterday:

    In November 1999, when Democrats were pressing for tighter gun controls, Earley told Congress that the solution was better enforcement, not more legislation. He was assigned to solicit a contribution from the Fairfax-based National Rifle Association, which donated $25,000 a month after Earley’s testimony, the documents state. Randy Kozuch, the gun group’s director of state and local affairs, also served on the RAGA finance committee that year.

    The documents state that Earley was assigned to contact several other major donors, including pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly, which paid $15,000 to join RAGA and sponsored a lunch at its spring conference for $5,000.

    Earley said he had never solicited funds from the NRA for RAGA. “There may be documents that someone suggests [calls] be parceled out to certain individuals, but I do not remember dealing with the NRA,” he said. “I did deal with some businesses that did business in Virginia,” he added.

    I guess I’m pessimistic much more will be learned. It would take a whistleblower at a company that made a donation (and possibly benefited thereby) to generate much more of a story.

    Many of the AGs focus their denials to avoiding fundraising from companies with pending litigation. But the denials leave the door open to fundraising from companies that could expect legal action if pending legislation were passed: “Those bozos in the State House are going to pass resolution XYZ; I sure agree with you it’s bad law — and you know what, I see how we might be able to at least take a narrow view of our authority. We’ll do what we can — but we need to win some elections…”

    Don’t want to believe your AG would do that? Neither do I. And in addition to being speculative, I don’t even know whether the scenario above would be illegal; like Michael Kinsley says, sometimes “the scandal is what’s legal.”

    At any rate, I also don’t want to have to just take the AGs’ word for it that they didn’t act unethically. That’s not how a government of, by, and for the people ought to work. I guess I wish Attorneys General were barred from political fundraising of any kind, but they and groups like this should at least have to fully disclose the fundraising they do.


    UPDATE, 7/21: Just doing my job: Don’t expect Virginia AG Jerry W. Kilgore to be worried about predecessor Mark Earley’s activities; Jerry’s the current RAGA chairman. The Richmond Times-Dispatch adds his — paraphrased — “yes, I fundraise, but not from companies in litigation with my state” statement to the list. The short article was still a memorable one: Kilgore’s spokesman said that as RAGA chairman, the AG’s phone calls soliciting donations for the Republican fundraising group are “part of the job description.” Call this the “of course he’s fundraising” response. Which is truly inspired spin, since it begs the question of who Kilgore is fundraising from, and whether this is a job a state attorney general should be doing. (Revised to note chairmanship.)

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    State Attorneys General shaking down corporations?

    Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th July 2003

    I’m no lawyer, but this seems pretty shaky to me. Today’s Washington Post runs a story by R. Jeffrey Smith and Tania Branigan, “GOP Attorneys General Asked For Corporate Contributions.” The top paragraphs:

    Republican state attorneys general in at least six states telephoned corporations or trade groups subject to lawsuits or regulations by their state governments to solicit hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions, according to internal fundraising documents obtained by The Washington Post.

    One of the documents mentions potential state actions against health maintenance organizations and suggests the attorneys general should “start targeting the HMO’s” for fundraising. It also cites a news article about consolidation and regulation of insurance firms and states that “this would be a natural area for us to focus on raising money.”

    Naturally! What could be a more lucrative source of contributions than corporations looking for a way to avoid state legal action? It reminds me of Willie Sutton’s famous line about why he robbed banks: Because that’s where the money is.”

    The fundraising was coordinated by the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA); the documents provide details for the years from 1999 to 2001. RAGA’s origins provide another news peg:

    RAGA was founded by [Alabama Attorney General William] Pryor and the Republican National Committee with the explicit aim of soliciting funds from the firearms, tobacco and paint industries and other industries facing state lawsuits over cancer deaths, lead poisoning, gunshots and consumer complaints, according to statements by Pryor and other officials.

    William Pryor is already a highly controversial 11th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee. I think you can add a cavalier attitude about the appearance and reality of conflicts of interest to the list of criticisms against him.

    The story lists a number of state attorneys general who were mentioned in the RAGA fundraising documents. To add a little value here, I’m providing links to their current web sites, and to the current state attorney general. If you’re from one of these states, you might want to find out whether your current or former attorney general hit up the HMOs or other companies (listed below) for what seems like a tasseled loafers version of protection money. You may want to suggest your current Attorney General should have a look, too, or at minimum take note that you take a dim view of this kind of fundraising:

  • VA: then-Virginia Attorney General Mark L. Earley
  • DE: Delaware Attorney General Jane Brady
  • SC: then-South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon
  • TX: then-Texas Attorney General, now U.S. Senator John Cornyn
  • OH: then-Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery
  • To be clear: I’d only have questions of each of these people; I don’t claim to be absolutely certain they’ve done something wrong or unethical. I don’t have the documents the Post reporters do. But the HMO and insurance quotes smell pretty bad, and the Post article provides details for Pryor’s and Cronyn’s activities. Re Senator Cornyn (R-TX):

    One document states, for example, that Cornyn was asked to collect a donation from Shell Oil in late 1999, but does not mention whether Shell gave the group money. The firm was one of five energy companies that reached a $12.6 million settlement with Cornyn in August 1999 in a dispute over unpaid royalties. Two years later, Shell was one of 28 oil and petrochemical companies to reach a $120 million settlement with him and the U.S. Department of Justice in a separate dispute over toxic waste.

    Last night, Don Stewart, a spokesman for Cornyn, said the senator does not recall telephoning Shell Oil. Stewart also said he was “troubled by the inference that there is some kind of connection” between any such phone call and a legal settlement that “benefited the citizens of Texas.”

    Well, Don, I’m troubled, too; “does not recall” is so much weaker than the “did not” I’d have rather heard. Just too many fundraising phone calls to recall any particular one, maybe.

    Other companies approached by RAGA members included Pfizer Inc., MasterCard Inc., Eli Lilly and Co., Anheuser-Busch Cos., Citigroup Inc., Amway Corp., U.S. Steel Corp., Nextel Communications Inc., General Motors Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Shell Oil Co., among other companies. The Post article notes:

    [The fundraising documents] make clear that RAGA assigned attorneys general to make calls to companies with business and legal interests in their own states.

    I, for one, would be especially interested if any of these companies faced legal or regulatory action in one of the states listed above. And yes, there is also a Democratic counterpart to RAGA; I can only hope they haven’t been targeting companies for fundraising that they are or should be targeting for legal action.

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