Johnson’s super PAC: The case for campaign finance reform

Dede Feldman

On Aug. 21, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson officially announced his U.S. Senate candidacy at an event hosted by the super PAC that supports him, Elect Liberty.

Elect Liberty paid for the venue, invited guests, fundraised in support of him, and Johnson promoted their/his event on his social media channels. How can a PAC that is not supposed to coordinate with a candidate throw an announcement party for him? The answer is a United States Supreme Court case, when it ruled in favor of the conservative group Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission. The decision opened the door not just for unlimited, and in many cases undisclosed, campaign donations, but for a vague interpretation of campaign finance laws that created more loopholes than any enforcement agency could track.

As a former New Mexico state senator, I’m proud of campaign finance reform that we were able to implement. Critically, we addressed campaign finance reform through passing limits on campaign contributions, public financing for the state’s higher courts and its Public Regulation Commission, a requirement for the disclosure of contributions on the web, and open legislative conference committees. Our secretary of state followed up last year with disclosure requirements for independent PACs and a better definition of “coordination.”

But in spite of our victories at the state level, federal candidates like Johnson are still able to exploit our election laws with impunity.

How could Elect Liberty hold Gary Johnson’s kickoff event? The Federal Election Commission decided that candidates could appear at PAC events as long as they are labeled “special guests.” In fact, not only can candidates attend a PAC event, but they can fundraise as long they don’t ask for more than $5,000. Then, as soon as the candidate leaves the room, a super PAC official can ask attendees for a $1 million check.

A closer look at Elect Liberty itself is equally problematic. The PAC was created and is run by Johnson’s former campaign manager and decadeslong associate, Ron Nielson. Are we really expected to believe that one of Johnson’s longest-serving advisers, the man he chose to run his 2016 presidential race and is in charge of a PAC that supports him, operates independently of the official campaign?

Optics aside, everything Johnson is currently doing is legal. But that’s one of the fundamental problems with the decision. Prior to Citizens United, there were safeguards in place that both required transparency and limited the ability of corporate interests to influence elections.

Even when candidates get caught breaking the rules, they face no immediate consequences. The Federal Election Commission’s ability to enforce the rules or levy a punishment, often takes years and amounts to a slap on the wrist.

While it should come as no surprise that Johnson — who supports the Citizens United ruling and unlimited campaign contributions — would use these loopholes, it’s a system that encourages candidates to skate around the edges of the law.

We have done much to limit the pervasive influence of money in politics in our state and local elections. But because of Citizens United, and other decisions, candidates running to represent the people of this state in Washington, D.C., can traffic in unlimited contributions, and all but work with special interest-controlled PACs.

It is clear that Gary Johnson and the Elect Liberty PAC are a textbook case for why we need a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators support the effort, including Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., who is running against Johnson. New Mexicans should be mindful of this when deciding which candidate shares their beliefs on the role of money in politics.

Dede Feldman is a Democratic former member of the New Mexico Senate who served for 16 years and was the sponsor of many state campaign finance laws.