As far as campaign finance advocacy groups go, Represent.Us is the flashiest. Their messaging includes everything from graphic-intensive YouTube videos about “corruption” to bloviating by Martin Sheen (who played a president on a television show once, and is thus qualified to tell us about money in politics). This is not surprising, since Represent boasts a board of directors that includes Hollywood film directors Adam McKay and David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence, an Oscar-winning actress, is also on the board, and was recently featured in a much-touted campaign from the company Omaze to raise money for Represent. The results of the contest are interesting, suggesting an influx of foreign money into American politics via Represent.Us—money the “reform” community ostensibly opposes.
Omaze is a brilliant concept that allows celebrities to use their influence to raise money for (their own?) pet causes by having meet-and-greets with winners drawn mostly from donors to certain charitable campaigns. Omaze attracts a whole lot of celebrities, and the campaigns probably raise a lot of money. I still regret that I did not win the campaign that featured a visit to the set of Blade Runner 2049 last year. What were the charities I donated to enter that contest? I didn’t even remember until I checked just now—they still sound like good causes, but I have not become a regular donor to any of them. And that’s the genius of it: by offering amazing experiences, Omaze gets people to open their wallets for the prize, not for the cause. The more you contribute, the more entries you get.
The irony is hopefully not lost on the folks at Represent. The organization wants political equality, but launched a fundraising campaign in which a donor who spends more gets more chances to win. It’s certainly more egalitarian than a silent auction, but not by much.
Ms. Lawrence touted a campaign to “help stop political corruption in America” by giving to Represent via Omaze and thereby entering a contest to join her at a wine tasting:
Omaze announced the winner of the contest the other evening via e-mail, and I join them in congratulating Louisa H. from London, England:
Represent itself has been strangely silent about this. It was a big campaign, promoted all over the web. With the winner, we hear nothing from Represent’s Twitter account, or their Facebook account, and nothing on their website. What gives?
It is possible that Louisa is an expat, an American living in London. However, it is also possible that Louisa is a British national or citizen of another country—that is, not an American. Legally, her citizenship would not make a difference; with both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) entity, Represent may accept all the foreign money it wants, so long as it does not spend that money on electoral advocacy relating to candidates (which 501(c)(4)s may do with other funds). Nevertheless, there’s a serious rub to Represent’s Omaze campaign, regardless of Louisa’s particular citizenship: Represent.Us held a worldwide fundraiser and raised foreign money to support their efforts to, among other things, influence public policy, including ballot initiatives.
Indeed, Represent’s continuing effort in South Dakota is a ballot initiative, one that claims the objective of “Banning foreign money from South Dakota politics[.]” (The proposed ballot initiative itself appears to only apply to foreign governments.) John Pudner, who sits on Represent’s advisory council, is on the record speaking in favor of federal regulation of foreign money spent to influence state and local ballot measures. The “reform” community at large—members of which Represent spends an inordinate amount of time re-tweeting and convention-ing (or, summit-ing) with—wholeheartedly backed former FEC Commissioner Ann Ravel’s effort just a few short years ago to regulate foreign money in local politics, even in campaigns that don’t relate to candidates.
Today, the reform community’s messaging on foreign political money is front-and-center, largely focused on the 2016 presidential campaign. It is a far-reaching effort of which Represent is undoubtedly well aware. But when it came time to fuel their efforts, between righteousness and money, Represent went with money.
Hypocrisy is human, and there is no shortage of it even in the holy halls of campaign finance reform. The point that Represent should take from this is that a group like theirs, with a large advisory council that includes prominent legal scholars and already enough money to employ a significantly large staff, can nevertheless step in it. This issue likely didn’t even cross their minds.
Here, it’s just optics, but if the law extended as far as they themselves want it to extend, Represent would be subject to audits, fines, and maybe even an investigation and prosecution by the Department of Justice just for one misstep in an otherwise clever fundraiser. Represent’s mission of implementing draconian regulation onto politics is a problem for democracy, not a fix. Given Represent’s company, I suspect their friends would never report them to the government even if there was a legal violation here, but such clubby discrimination is but another facet of “reform” that makes it anything but.