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The List: Independent Committees Spent Record Share in 2015 Assembly Races

Less regulated than PACs -- and more secretive -- independent committees can make it equally tricky to track contributions and donations

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This year’s Assembly race may not have seemed memorably dramatic, but the 2015 election still managed to break Garden State spending records. Not only was a record $30.5 million doled out by candidates and various politically active committees for seats in the lower house alone, but also an unprecedented 35 percent of this total came from less-regulated, largely secretive so-called independent committees.

According to a preliminary analysis by the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission, seven independent committees invested some $10.7 million in the race, mostly in the 1st and 2nd Legislative Districts, in Cape May and Atlantic counties.

“Virtually all of the … independent spending benefitted Democratic candidates,” said Jeff Brindle, ELEC’s executive director. (Democrats won three of the four Assembly seats in that pair of targeted South Jersey districts.)

Independent committees can advocate directly for or against a specific candidate, but are not supposed to coordinate their activities with individual or party campaigns. Unlike candidate committees and traditional PACs, or political action committees, these independent committees are not subject to contribution limits and most do not need to reveal their funders, either. As a result, they are attractive vehicles for big-spenders looking to influence elections from behind the scenes.

These independent organizations have become increasingly powerful in recent years, as reform efforts have limited some options for wealthy donors and court rulings have opened the door to other, less transparent ways to give. ELEC research published in September shows how these groups have exploded in recent years, with total spending among these organizations growing from $1.8 million in 2011 to $10.5 million just two years later.

On November 3, a meager 22 percent of registered voters weighed in on candidates for all 80 seats in the state Assembly, as well as county and local races; the last time Assembly candidates topped the ballot, in 1999, turnout was 31 percent. Democrats picked up five seats in this year’s contest, widening their current 47-32 majority over GOP in the lower chamber.

According to ELEC’s latest analysis of preliminary spending reports -- the only document state law requires independent committees to file -- seven organizations made definitive expenditures or contributions to benefit legislative campaigns. (ELEC has recommended state law be changed to ensure independent committees follow the same disclosure regulations that govern donations to traditional PACs and candidate committees.)

Scant information is available about these organizations’ activities: Although they go by different names, many share supporters and funnel donations among themselves to support mutual causes. Several committees are led by trade groups with a rich history of political activism -- and significant fundraising muscle -- including unions representing carpenters, teachers, and real estate professionals.

Based on ELEC’s findings, this list includes:

1. General Majority PAC

Called a “Democratic Super PAC” by ELEC, General Majority was the biggest player in this year’s contest, spending nearly $5.9 million in total, all during the general election. The committee is this year’s version of the Fund for Jobs Growth and Security, an independent committee that led the spending charts in the 2013 election, when it invested more than $8 million to limit the “coattail” benefit Gov. Chris Christie’s landslide reelection provided Republican legislative candidates, according to a past ELEC interview with the fund’s director. That fund was run by Susan McCue, a Garden State native and chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, (D-NV), and it borrowed from tactics used in national races to pool Democratic resources and funnel the money to districts vulnerable to party switching (like the 1st and 2nd, where Democrats have largely stayed in office even as the population leans more and more toward Republican policies.)

General Majority also goes above and beyond the requirements when it comes to reporting, providing a breakdown of their donors and a more detailed expense report. In the most recent filing, on November 23, the committee said it raised nearly $1.9 million over the past month -- much of it from other independent committees. This revenue included:

  • $890,000 from Garden State Forward, an independent committee led by the teachers union, in three donations over the final days of the campaign; overall, Garden State Forward provided General Majority with $3.64 million

  • $300,000 from Working for Working Americans, a labor group in Las Vegas

  • $250,000 from the Communications Workers of America’s local arm

  • $250,000 from the Leaders Fund, a Democratic legislative committee

  • $100,000 from the Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress, another independent committee

While all independent organizations are required to report some spending, General Majority provides more detail than most. Among the expenses, General Majority reported the following spending -- sometimes in multiple payments -- in the final weeks:

  • $60,000 to Clarity Campaign Labs, a research firm in Washington, D.C.

  • $42,800 to Global Strategies Group, a polling company in New York City

  • $125,600 to Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a polling and research firm in D.C.

  • $150,000 to Block by Block, an Ewing, NJ, group that provided field services in a handful of districts

  • $312,000 to Mission Control, a direct-mail company in Mansfield Center, CT

  • $442,000 to The Campaign Group, a Philadelphia company that produced TV and radio ads

  • $700,000+ to SKDKnickerbocker, a political media company in D.C.

  • Dozens of bank fees of $20 or less to an Amalgamated Bank in D.C. fees for paycheck processing and other minor operations expenses

2. Garden State Forward

This committee reveals little in its filings, but the address it lists belongs to a longtime political powerhouse, the New Jersey Education Association. The Democratic-leaning teachers union has long played an enormous role in state politics, and this organization gave them a new way to raise money and shape elections, in addition to their traditional education PACs.

In addition to funneling money to General Majority, Garden State Forward spent heavily on TV, radio, and Internet advertising. According to the two reports they filed with ELEC, on October 23 and November 2, the committee paid The New Media Firm, a Washington, D.C., advertising firm, $233,500 in three installments for its services.

3. Carpenters Fund for Growth and Progress

Operated by the carpenters union, the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, in Collingswood, this independent committee was formed in January with more than $700,000 already in the bank. ELEC found the fund invested heavily in the primary, spending nearly $769,000 of a total $1.26 million during that first half of the race.

According to ELEC filings, the fund received donations of $200,000 from the union during the summer and fall, spent about $66,000 on operations and contributed nearly $1.2 million to committees or candidates. In addition to its donation to General Majority, spending included $3,000 on direct text messaging, through Washington, D.C.-based Revolution Messaging; $10,200 to Switchboard, also in D.C., for robo-calls; and nearly $14,500 on consultants and a trip to D.C. in July.

4. National Association of Realtors Fund

It has a mailing address in Chicago and a preference for Democrats, but ELEC has few details on this fund. It was especially active in the 20th District, where Democrats maintained both seats by wide voter margins. ELEC found it spent nearly $117,000 in the primary and another $268,000-plus in the general election. According to the filings available online, expenses included more than $91,000 for field work in the primary, paid to Five Corner Strategies in Newton, MA; $125,000 to Lincoln Strategies, a Tempe, AZ, company that helped with field work; roughly $145,00 to Denver, CO-based Associated Campaign Consulting and Election Services, for phone calls and direct mail; and $400 to the National Association of Realtors, in Chicago, for ‘campaign services.’

5. NJ Coalition of Real Estate

NJCORE, with a Hamilton, NJ mailing address, spent slightly more than $119,000 on the race, about two-thirds of it in the general election. Most of this money appeared to come from the National Association of Realtors, in Chicago, ELEC filings show, but additional details on the groups activities were limited.

6. New Jerseyans for a Better Tomorrow

Little information is available about this committee as well, but according to ELEC’s recent analysis, this Democratic-leaning group also contributed $25,000 to the General Majority committee during the general election cycle.

7. NJ League of Conservation Voters for a Clean Environment

An independent committee established by the state’s League of Conservation Voters, the league spent $23,280 in the general election to support bipartisan causes, according to ELEC. According to various reports, the committee also spent some $20,280 on direct mail with Fulcrum Campaign Strategies, a Washington, D.C., firm, and $3,000 with Fifty One Percent, a Trenton polling company. Donations included $7,850 from the national League of Conservation Voters, in D.C.

Lilo H. Stainton is an award-winning reporter who covered politics and public policy in New Jersey for more than a decade and later served as press secretary to Gov. Jon S. Corzine. She has also worked as a communications strategist, campaign director, and advocate for coastal protection in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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