(Posted May 7) With Mother’s Day approaching, Bob LaBrant, Michigan’s pre-eminent campaign finance litigator, got to thinking — what nascent fund-raising atrocity posed his greatest threat?
Then he read a review of Ellen Malcolm’s new book, and it all came back to him. Here’s what LaBrant remembers from the time he felt he was in “a dark and lonely place”:
“The book, entitled ‘When Women Win: EMILY’s List and the Rise of Women in American Politics’ brought back memories of my hot-and-cold relationship with the concept of “bundling” in the 1990s.
“This was a time before the use of soft money became common in American politics. Reform groups had started pushing for the imposition of “caps” on the total amount of PAC dollars candidates could accept. PAC caps were Common Cause’s reform du jour at the time, and Arizona had adopted PAC caps in a statewide initiative, followed by the imposition of PAC caps in several other states. I felt that bundling might be the difference-maker and that EMILY’s LIST was on to something, although it wasn’t on behalf of a cause I favored.
“EMILY’s LIST was, and still is, a donor network created by Ellen Malcolm, who was an heiress to an IBM fortune. She was also an activist in the anti-Vietnam War movement and Common Cause in the 1970s. She became active in the feminist/women’s movement and their efforts to elect women to high office such as U.S. Senator or Governor. She had seen a female candidate, Harriet Woods of Missouri, narrowly lose a U.S. Senate race in 1982 because she could not raise sufficient funds early enough in her campaign.
“EMILY’s List was born in time for the 1986 elections. The name was a clever acronym for the phrase “Early Money is Like Yeast” (it makes the dough rise — get it?) Unlike a political action committee (PAC), which could contribute only $5,000 per election ($5,000 in a primary, $5,000 in the general) in federal contests, Malcolm did an “end-run” by creating a donor network consisting of, at first, hundreds and, eventually, thousands of people who pledged to write a minimum of two $100 checks during an election to candidates on EMILY’s List. Those checks were returned to Malcolm and then “bundled” for delivery by EMILY’s List to their favored candidates. For example, 750 checks, each for $100, equals $75,000. That amount dwarfed what a traditional PAC could legally donate to a candidate. EMILY’s List became an instant success by bankrolling successful female candidates who were pro-choice (on abortion) Democrats like Barbara Mikulski, running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland, and Ann Richards, running for Governor in Texas. Today, Hillary Clinton stands on the threshold of being the first woman nominated (and perhaps elected) to be President of the United States, with substantial support from EMILY’s List.
“In the 1980s and ’90s, I was active on behalf of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce in submitting comments, requesting declaratory rulings and filing campaign finance complaints. I did so in an attempt to shape the Michigan Campaign Finance Act (MCFA) administratively.
“For example, I submitted comments to the Secretary of State in 1992 (when Democrat Richard Austin still held the office) which were critical of a request by one Carl Gromek, who happened to be the administrative officer of the state Court of Appeals. Gromek was asking for a ruling from Mr. Austin as to whether he could put together a list of appellate judges who would be sequentially contacted by him to purchase legislative fundraising tickets (which would undoubtedly go to a member of a House or Senate judicial appropriations subcommitee). After purchasing a ticket, that judge’s name would go to the bottom of Gromek’s list and the next judge would be asked to contribute to the next legislative fund-raising invitation received. Gromek was asking the Secretary of State if such activity triggered any reporting requirements. I charged that the Dept. of State was being asked to approve Gromek’s attempt to create a de facto “judicial EMILY’s List.”
“Ultimately, the Secretary of State ruled that such a scheme was a “joint action” by a group of two or more persons, which would trigger “committee” status under the MCFA. In addition, the Secretary of State volunteered an opinion on what should have been obvious — the scheme could be seen as an improper use of public resources by the Court of Appeals and even a violation of the Judicial Canon of Ethics.
“Gromek’s proposal was wisely abandoned, but the phrase “EMILY’s List” stuck in my head. There is more to this story. I was just getting started, and it involved Debbie Stabenow, E. Spencer Abraham, Dick Posthumus and Jennifer Granholm.
“I’ll let you know what happened later in a future article in The Ballenger Report.”