Op-Ed: Reasons to Protest an Attempt to Stop NJ’s New ‘Dark Money’ Law

David Goodman | September 6, 2019 | Opinion
New Jersey grassroots group will fight Americans for Prosperity’s move against the state’s ‘End Dark Money’ Law

David Goodman
On a Tuesday in September, I and others will protest.

We will be at the federal courthouse in Trenton on Sept.17, when the Koch network and their allies ask a judge to stop New Jersey’s new “End Dark Money” Law (S-150) with an injunction. We will be there to say “Yes” to transparency and disclosure of secret political contributions and “No” to them and their agenda.

The Kochs’ front group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), claims the law deprives them of their “freedom” under the First Amendment. The untruth of that claim runs deep and endangers our democracy and republic — from towns and cities in New Jersey to communities across the country.

How so? The AFP’s lawsuit (Americans for Prosperity v. Grewal et al.) describes S-150 as regulating and imposing disclosure requirements on “Independent Expenditure Committees,” specifically 501(c)(4) and 527 corporations, without any boundaries. As such, their lawsuit could be read as a standard civil liberties case. But far from it. It is apiece with a carefully constructed approach of Koch and their allies to conflate and confuse touchstones like “freedom,” which most Americans strongly embrace, with a stealth, radical plan for political and corporate control.

Our interpretation is not conspiratorial. Rather, we expose a patient, long-term strategy, in this case, to keep “dark money” under wraps. “Freedom” is less for you and me and more for the super-rich (0.001 percent) to do whatever they want with little or no oversight or penalty. Every chipping away at our right to know and be represented, whether through the courts, Congress, or state legislatures, advances this plan.

Threat to American democracy?

A 2014 study by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern shows how this happens. They examined nearly 1,800 bills passed in Congress over 20 years. Their findings? Regardless of how many Americans support a bill, they found only about 30 percent are ever likely to become a law. In other words, no matter how much support we and our fellow citizens muster, Congress is only 30 percent likely to listen.

“The preferences of the average American,” concluded Gilens and Page, “appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” Or, in more straight-forward language, “If policy making is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to be a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

Gilens and Page studied data; others look at the chief actors.

There is Jane Mayer’s 2016 best-seller, “Dark Money.” Subtitled a “hidden history” of the Koch brothers and their billionaire allies, her book shined light on the political and issue spending of secretive 501(c)(4) groups and their agenda. Mayer’s investigative reporting revealed the scope and depth of “dark money” in corrupting and crippling government action at local, state and national levels.

Business reporter Christopher Leonard’s new book, “Kochland: The Secret History of Koch Industries and Corporate Power in America,” traces the growth of Koch Industries as the world’s second-largest privately held corporation and driver of the Kochs’ political agenda. With muscle from fossil-fuel companies, Koch Industries pumped huge sums to support the work of climate-change deniers and make national action on climate change virtually impossible.

Perhaps the most audacious — and threatening — of the Koch-sponsored campaigns is the stealthy effort of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) for an Article V convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution. Right now, 28 states have passed resolutions calling for this convention. All Koch and ALEC need is the approval of 34 state legislatures (no governor’s signature required) — or six more states — to compel Congress to call such a gathering.

While defenders of this Article V convention claim it is limited to a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, there really are no boundaries. The only time we had such a convention was in 1787. Then, the delegates said they too had gathered to bring order to the chaos of commerce among the 13 original states. Instead, they wound up scrapping the Articles of Confederation, replacing it with the U.S. Constitution.

“Once a convention is convened, they could take up any topic they want to,” according to Karen Hobert Flynn of Common Cause. That’s the risk today.

‘Democracy in chains’

Does this litany seem extreme or a stretch compared to a lawsuit to stop New Jersey’s “End Dark Money” law?

  • Not if you acknowledge the Kochs’ focus on patience, the long view, and stealthy action.
  • Not if you are reminded of their deep pockets and willingness to exhaust all legal appeals and seek to overturn precedent — up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • And, not if you fear the endgame of the Kochs’ money, which to quote historian Nancy MacLean could put “democracy in chains.”
  • So, yes, we, Represent.Us, will protest at the courthouse in Trenton on Sept. 17. We will urge the court to follow the landmark case of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) and other decisions affirming New Jersey’s legal authority to require disclosure of contributions by independent groups that engage in express advocacy. And we will do so on behalf of 18,000 members in New Jersey across all platforms, including social media, and the more than 3,000 who signed online “drop the lawsuit.”

    But, yes, we also will show our opposition to the dark vision for America of the Koch network. We will take a stand as Represent.Us members have done repeatedly across the country in South Dakota and elsewhere.

    If New Jersey is to be a next political battleground, we will be ready.

    Will you join us?