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Editorial: Swamp Things

There’s an old story about a motorist who gets stuck in a muddy hole on the road in front of a farm. The farmer helps the motorist get unstuck but says he must charge him $50 as he is the third motorist to get stuck in the hole that week. Wow, exclaims the motorist. You must be forced to tend your crops at nighttime. No, says the farmer, nighttime is when I fill the hole with water.

President Donald Trump has spoken quite a lot about draining the swamp, but has he ever considered that others are coming along at nighttime and filling it back up?

There is a story on page 11 of this issue that, depending on your view, either can be about draining the swamp or filling it with water. The story talks about a group called Missouri Century Foundation [MCF], a 501[c][4] organization founded in 2015 by some well-known Show-Me State conservatives. Apparently, this group supported Chesterfield Councilmember Tom DeCampi’s re-election bid. DeCampi does not deny the group’s support and accepting such support would not violate existing campaign laws. 

So why does all this matter? Bear with us, it gets a little complicated. 

501[c][4] organizations surged in growth following a Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United. Those organizations are tax-exempt groups deemed as “social welfare” organizations and are allowed to participate in political activity so long as it does not become their primary focus. The difference between those organizations and Political Action Committees [PACs] is that 501[c][4] organizations can raise and spend unlimited sums of money without reporting the source of that money, hence the term “dark money.”

The argument in favor of those organizations is fairly simple: money is speech, anonymous speech is protected by the First Amendment, therefore dark money is and should be protected as well.

The argument against them is also fairly simple: dark money allows anonymous outside forces to dramatically affect our election process, particularly at the local level.

In the case of DeCampi, MCF’s support came in the form of direct mail pieces and telephone calls supporting his candidacy. Again, so long as MCF did not coordinate those activities with the candidate, they are all perfectly legal.

At last week’s Chesterfield City Council meeting, local resident Jenny Potashnick advocated for a constitutional amendment that would effectively outlaw the participation of such organizations. Potashnick represents a local chapter of a nonprofit organization called American Promise, which is promoting a 28th amendment concept nationwide. American Promise has a sister organization called American Promise Initiative that is – wait for it – a 501[c][4] organization.

Gov. Eric Greitens has been criticized for his affiliation with those types of groups. Former President Barack Obama was criticized for his affiliation with those types of groups. Honestly, almost every active statewide or federal politician since the Citizens United decision likely has had some affiliation with a 501[c][4], whether they like it or not. The difference here is that it happened at the local, citywide level. City Council campaigns do not tend to be big money affairs, so, in theory, a small amount of outside, anonymous money could create an outsized influence. 

We believe in the power and importance of free speech, but at some point we also need to stop letting the farmer fill the hole with water at night.

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