The Free Press, Mankato, MN

December 4, 2012

Our View: Outside groups drown out candidates

The Free Press

— Imagine you’re a candidate for state office, intent upon focusing your message on the particular needs and desires of your constituents — coupling them with the experiences and ideas you believe make you essential to finding solutions.

Your task is to define your own brand of leadership, to match it with enough like-minded voters who can get you elected.

But there’s a problem. The opposition wants to define you, too, and there seems to be no limit on the money they can throw against you.

During the Minnesota legislative campaigns of 2012, hostile branding, say some, was at an all-time high. Some candidates go so far as to call it “identity theft.” Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, said as much when he remarked recently, “This election has been the clearest demonstration of that yet.”

Since Nov. 6, the board has been busy assessing all the negative spending by outside groups. Goldsmith says that in many cases, the candidate’s message was the “weakest” message that was heard this year.

That’s a problem. Both winning candidates and losing candidates are at their wits’ end as outside groups, unburdened by any fear of limitation or reprisal (the Office of Administrative Hearings has jurisdiction over false advertising but does not probe potential violations), feel enabled to make all the misleading attacks that they want.

Minnesota should re-think the way it deals with malicious attacks by independent groups that bypass scrutiny because they claim to be educational and not political. Given the fact that no one with any real authority seems willing to investigate these groups, that’s a tall order.

It’s an even taller order given the fact that our own perceptions on what constitutes protected speech is under constant debate. Even lap dancing, in some circles, is worthy of free speech protection. So what of political speech, which must be robust in order for us to have an equally robust democracy?

The answer may ultimately lie in arriving at a consensus on whether these political attacks by outside groups are unfair and malicious to the point of exacerbating voters’ right to receive accurate information on their candidates. If that is happening — and it appears that it is, indeed — then it may be wise to look again at public financing options. If not that, at the very least Minnesota’s existing disclosure laws should be strengthened. Outside groups should be pushed harder to disclose where they get their funds, and from whom.