Special interest money in Newark election fuels debate over campaign finance reform

By Ted Sherman/The Star-Ledger
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on May 25, 2014

Dueling signs backing mayoral candidates in Newark, where more than $2.6 million was spent by various special interest groups in support of the two candidates. The record outside spending has drawn calls for an overhaul in the state's campaign finance laws


NEWARK — The money came flooding into Newark, threatening to drown out the voices of the candidates themselves.

Seven advocacy groups — some backed by labor organizations; others with a much less clear agenda — pumped more than $2.6 million into the Newark mayoral race earlier this month in an effort to influence the hotly contested campaign won by Ras Baraka, far eclipsing what the candidates themselves put into the bitter fight.

The amount of outside money that came into the Newark race has some now questioning whether the state’s campaign disclosure laws need to be overhauled to require disclosure of donors and the registration of the independent groups, which have become an increasing factor in New Jersey elections from the Statehouse down to city hall.

Jeffrey Brindle, who heads the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, said what is commonplace at the national and state level is already part of the game plan even in municipal races. The problem, he said, is that the public is often in the dark over who is fronting the messages bombarding voters during a campaign.

"They operate in secret and anonymously," said Brindle of the independent expenditure committees.

The tax-exempt advocacy groups, which have no restrictions on how much they can raise and spend but are not allowed to coordinate with campaigns, have long been a factor in national and statewide election races. This is especially true in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United case in 2010 lifting restrictions on spending by corporations and labor unions. They report their expenditures on a campaign, but the source of their funding can be murky or undisclosed.

According to Brindle, at least $41 million from independent groups was in play during the races for governor and the Legislature last year. But before the May 13 Newark municipal election, the most money an outside group had ever put into a local New Jersey campaign was the $250,000 spent last year in the Jersey City mayoral race by Better Education for New Jersey Kids, a group advocating for charter school education, according to ELEC filings.

In Newark, the final tally of outside spending won’t be known until the filing of 20-day postelection reports later this month. But at least
$3 million was spent just in independent media buys through the last weeks of the mayoral contest between Baraka and Shavar Jeffries, according to officials with the Baraka campaign. The candidates themselves spent a total of only $314,000 on TV and media.

"Obviously outside groups are beginning to extend their tentacles into municipal elections," observed Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University. "Whether that’s good or bad, there are clearly groups with their own agendas which may not be consistent with agendas of residents."

Newark Families for Progress, which spent more than $181,000 in support of Jeffries during the campaign, was not a Newark grassroots organization. Its treasurer was an organizer for President Obama and its director a Brooklyn-based political operative who has worked other Democratic campaigns. It was funded by charter school advocates.

Patrick van Keerbergen, who ran the group’s field operation in Newark, said the aim was to help mobilize Newark parents who care about the city’s schools and wanted to get involved.

"All the parents who knocked on doors and appeared in commercials were from Newark," he said. "They felt strongly about the election and this was a way to get their voice out there."

The money for Newark Families for Progress, though, came from Education Reform Now Advocacy, a New York-based group that supports charter schools.

Newark First, which funneled more than $1.6 million into the Newark election, also in support of Jeffries, was similarly funded by charter school advocates. Its organizers did not return repeated calls or emails.

Among those supporting Baraka included Working Families Organization, a union coalition; NJ Workers Voices, an AFL-CIO-affiliated group; and the American Federation of Teachers.

Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer) is a sponsor of legislation now in committee that would require independent political committees to report contribution and expenditure information to ELEC, and clearly identify the organization itself.

"We’re trending to the point where you see more independent expenditure money than the money spent by the candidates," he said. "Some is anonymous and some you are not sure where it came from. It’s getting harder and harder to figure out."

A similar bill is sitting in the state Senate, but there has been a reluctance by the Legislature to address the spending by independent committees — complicated by the changing federal landscape, as well as the resources an advocacy group can bring to a campaign.

"They see it as a weapon in the game and nobody wants to unilaterally disarm," Benson explained.

At the same time, he said voters need to know where the money fueling election debate comes from.

"The question is who is driving democracy?" he asked.

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