Scott Mooneyham: PAC power stronger than ever

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 27, 2012

RALEIGH — It almost seems quaint now. A couple of decades ago, more than a few politicians were swearing off PAC dollars.
Long before the coming of the Citizens United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the unfettered flow of corporate money into politics and SuperPACs, there were just PACS, political action committees.
There still are.
Back in the 1980s and ‘90s, though, PACs were seen by some as the pinnacle of campaign cash evil, an easy avenue of corporate influence in politics.
For some candidates, the PAC money made life easy. No need to work the phones day and night to collect $100 here or $200 there from friends and acquaintances. Just gather a handful of $4,000 contributions from a PAC, and your fund-raising goals would be met.
For different reasons — some honorable and others not — some candidates wouldn’t take PAC money.
Some saw it as distasteful, a selling of the political soul. Others knew that they weren’t likely to get much of the money anyway, and so used their no-PAC pledge to beat on their opponents.
Every once in a while, you still hear a political candidate today talk about not taking PAC dollars.
It would be nice to believe that they are attempting to revive some notion of the pristine politician. More likely, they are living in the past and haven’t gotten the memo: No one seems to care.
For many PACs, the basic rules of the political influence road haven’t changed much.
Corporate PACs collect individual donations from company employees, mostly executives, bundle that money and then pass it on candidates of their choosing while sticking within individual donation limits.
Trade group PACs, which typically represent small business owners engaged in the same kind of business, do the same. The difference is that the PAC donors aren’t employed by the same company.
Some PACs, instead of giving to politicians, have begun spending their money themselves, acting independently to help or hurt candidates of their choosing, or scare them into joining their side on an issue.
But many PACs in North Carolina still give out huge sums in individual contributions, the money flowing mostly to those with the most power.
Recently, Bob Hall of the campaign watchdog group Democracy North Carolina reported that legislative leaders are relying more heavily than ever on PAC dollars.
Hall reported that roughly a third of the campaign money that House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger had raised during the current election cycle came from PACs. Previous legislative leaders had raised between 20 and 25 percent of their campaign money from PACs in the 2009-10.
Twenty years ago, the trend line might have caused some tongue-wagging and head-shaking. An opponent might have tried to make hay with the figures.
Today, still being able to see who is giving their campaigns money is something.
And trying to figure out the motives of the next shadow group dropping $1 million on legislative races is something else.
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Scott Mooneyham writes columns for Capitol Press Association.