How a Small City Is Taking on the Big Power of Dark Money

Late in January, a small army of right-wing oligarchs and political operatives gathered in Southern California for the Koch Network’s annual winter seminar.

Story by Jimmy Tobias, The Nation

They were there to learn about the network’s plans for the 2018 midterm elections. They learned, for instance, that the sprawling political organization will spend at least $400 million next fall to help the Republican Party maintain its majority in Congress. They learned that the network will target Senate Democrats in states where Trump was victorious in 2016, including Wisconsin, Indiana, and Missouri. They learned that the billionaire brothers and their backers will launch a massive direct-mail and get-out-the-vote effort beginning this summer. Relying on their vast financial resources, Charles and David Koch and their friends hope to fix the outcome of the democratic process.

Meanwhile, elections haven’t been the only targets of the titan elite. In courts around the country, wealthy conservative donors have also been busy trying to fix the judicial process. Consider the Janus v. AFSCME case, which is currently before the Supreme Court and which could devastate public employee unions by gutting their ability to collects fees from workers they represent. On its face, the case is being brought by a discontented public-sector worker from Illinois named Mark Janus. In reality, the case is all about furthering the political agenda of the reactionary rich, and especially the agenda of Richard Uihlein. Uihlein is a powerful industrialist who bankrolls right-wing groups and candidates in the Midwest, and his money is behind the conservative legal group that represents Janus in the case.

And then, there’s Amazon and its extortionist efforts to find a new home for its second headquarters. The nearly $700 billion company is using its vast financial clout as a weapon with which to extract tax breaks and other incentives from cities that covet its new headquarters. This has led a series of major American municipalities to offer secret bids to the company, offering to shower public money on the private corporation without disclosing the precise details of their plans. Jeff Bezos, all the while, watches and waits while his net worth—more than $120 billion—grows ever larger.

All three of these cases illustrate the alarming power of organized money—the way that the ultra-wealthy use their resources to hijack the political and electoral machinery that is meant to represent all Americans. But even as they’ve been busy doing their best to rig the system, a cast of local activists, organizers and elected officials have been pushing back with the full force of their grassroots savvy. These urban progressives don’t have the clout, the means, or the money of their foes, but they have determination, and they’ve been deploying it in cities across the country—in Arizona and New York, Ohio, Texas, and well beyond—to try to thwart the dominion of billionaires.

Here’s what they’ve been up to recently.

TEMPE VOTES OUT DARK MONEY

Since taking office in 2015, City Council member Lauren Kuby has been on a nonstop mission to make Tempe, Arizona’s elections squeaky-clean. In 2015, during her first year on the council, she founded a campaign-finance working group with her colleagues and created an online searchable database that displays every expenditure and contribution in city elections. In 2016, she and her fellow officials established a lobbyist registry for the city and spearheaded a local ballot initiative that strictly capped political contributions by individuals and political-action committees. In 2017, they passed an ordinance that requires city council candidates to explicitly disclose donations they receive from registered lobbyists. And in 2018, Kuby and her allies went further still.

Over the last six months, Kuby and a small cohort of fellow election reformers launched and led a campaign to ban dark money in Tempe’s elections and thereby become a model for other cities across the state. They wanted to protect their city from the kind of anonymous outside meddling that is a specialty of the Koch brothers and their ilk.

“The ordinance will require those who independently spend $1,000 dollars or more in a city election to disclose the original source of those donations,” says Kuby. “We called it the ‘Keep Dark Money Out of Local Tempe Elections’ initiative, and it is simply meant to increase transparency between elected officials, candidates and voters.”

Kuby worked with her council colleagues, along with former Arizona attorney general Terry Goddard and a grassroots group called the Arizona Advocacy Network, to put an initiative on the March 2018 local ballot that would amend the city’s charter and effectively prohibit dark money in elections there. They organized council meetings and public forums. They ran online ads and produced literature to hand out during door-to-door canvassing. But a major get-out-the-vote effort wasn’t really necessary. The dark money ban was immensely popular, and on March 13 Tempe voters passed it by an astounding 91 percent.

Indeed, support for the ban was so overwhelming in Tempe that local officials in Phoenix soon followed suit and started working on a dark-money ban of their own. Terry Goddard, meanwhile, launched a drive to put a similar ban on the statewide ballot in November 2018.

“The 91 percent vote in Tempe was amazing. Putin doesn’t get that kind of a vote,” says Goddard, who is a long-time clean-elections advocate in the state. “What it shows beyond any question is that this is very popular. People in Arizona think that to have a fair fight in a political context you need to know who is paying for the ads.”

Still, the dark-money forces aren’t giving up that easily. On March 28, the Republican-led Arizona legislature passed a bill that explicitly prohibits cities like Tempe from requiring dark money groups to disclose their donors. The bill is meant to prevent Tempe’s good example from spreading across the state. Kuby says that she and her allies are ready to defend their achievement in court if need be.

“We are ready to ramp this up,” says Kuby. “We are ready to defend democracy, because democracy ain’t cheap.”

THE OTHER SIDE OF JANUS

Should the Supreme Court issue an adverse decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case, it would eviscerate the power of public-sector unions across the country—which is, of course, precisely what the lawsuit’s billionaire backers are hoping for.

Working people and their political representatives, on the other hand, are fighting like hell to persuade the justices that a ruling against unions will undermine the well-being of millions. As the court prepares its decision, cities across the country are issuing resolutions calling on it to tread carefully, to respect workers and to rule in their favor. In doing so, they hope the power of popular sentiment might sway the justices.

Nashville, Tennessee, helped lead the way when, on March 20, its city council passed a resolution expressing its support for public employee unions and urging the Supreme Court to “consider the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Memphis sanitation workers” when it renders its decision in the Janus case.

City Councilmember Tanaka Vercher, who was the lead sponsor of the resolution, says the Janus case is as much about racial justice as it is about economic justice.

“In our city, our unions represent over 25,000 working families both in the public and private sector,” she says. “We know that many unions represent persons of color at a much larger percentage. We know the adverse effect an [anti-worker ruling] would have, especially on persons of color. We know that we have no authority over the Supreme Court, but we are asking that they uphold the integrity of public unions.”

On March 28, Chicago’s city council also adopted a Janus-inspired resolution, in which it too tied public-sector unionism to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and reminded the court that its ruling will have a “monumental impact on our city residents.”

“The Supreme Court needs to know that cities across the United States are taking a stand in support of workers’ rights,” says Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, one of the resolution’s sponsors. “It is extremely important that we inform the justices that elected officials are siding with public employee unions.”

Meanwhile, several weeks earlier, Philadelphia passed an ordinance of its own “supporting public sector workers whose rights and freedoms are threatened as the Supreme Court considers Janus v. AFSCME.”

“There’s no question that this case will have a significant impact on the voice of working families and people of color in this country, especially considering the fact that public-sector unions are where most people of color who are in unions are represented,” says Councilmember Helen Gym, who was one of the legislators who introduced the resolution. “But let’s be frank. Right now, SCOTUS is a part of a White House, Congress and too many agencies of the federal government who are undermining our middle class and the diversity of our nation like never before. It can feel overwhelming in this moment, but there will be political change.”

Other cities that have passed pro-worker resolutions in response to the case include San Francisco, St. Louis, Columbus and El Paso.

OPTING OUT OF THE HQ2 ARMS RACE

When Amazon announced last year that it was seeking to build a second headquarters in a new city, it set off a dog-eat-dog scramble among municipalities across the country, encouraging them to compete with each other for the privilege of its presence. Soon thereafter, urban administrations from coast to coast began submitting (often secret) bids to the company, hoping to lure it to their jurisdictions with tax breaks and other publicly funded benefits.

Yet at least a few officials aren’t having it. In early March, Councilmember Brad Lander of New York, Councilmember Jared Evans of Indianapolis, Councilmember Philip Kingston of Dallas, and Councilmember Gregorio Casar of Austin signed on to a “mutual non-aggression pact” in which they expressed their strong opposition to Amazon’s bidding war and vowed to resist its efforts to extract the maximum amount of benefits from the residents of their respective cities. They want their cities and other “finalists” for Amazon’s second headquarters to band together and refuse to offer massive tax breaks and other giveaways to the tech behemoth.

“Amazon has basically forced a race to the bottom among major cities across America,” says Casar. “The Amazon bidding war is the worst example I have seen of a large corporation trying to pit cities against one another in a way that hurts the public good.”

The mutual non-aggression pact—which began as a Change.org petitionwritten by urban studies professor and Atlantic editor Richard Florida—has garnered the support of more than 16,000 academics, policy experts, activists and residents across the country.

“When we saw the [pact] we knew it would be important for there to be some elected officials saying that what Amazon is doing is appalling,” says Lander. “We say no to it and we hope to lead a movement of cities that will resist it.”

Signs of such resistance are growing. In Washington, DC, local groups like the Fair Budget Coalition and Metro DC DSA have launched a campaign called “Obviously Not DC.” The campaign hopes to prevent the city government from buckling to Jeff Bezos’ predatory efforts, and instead commit its resources to priorities like housing and public transportation.

“We are so often told by city officials that there is no money for affordable housing or other social issues,” says Stephanie Sneed, co-director of the Fair Budget Coalition. “And then they turn around and offer corporate welfare to Amazon. It is deeply concerning to us.”

Since its inception, “Obviously Not DC” has launched a petition and a website, has held numerous public rallies and is now at work lobbying City Council members to come out publicly against the Amazon bidding war. This is the sort of budding local resistance that elected officials like Casar hope the “mutual non-aggression pact” will encourage and inspire in the months ahead.

“What you are seeing are movements and organizations calling on city councils not to give tax breaks to Amazon,” he says. “I think this pact is important to show both to Amazon and these 20 finalist cities that these movements are growing and building and that there is support for them.”