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The U.S. Chamber of Stealth

April 22, 2006|Michael Cuddy | MICHAEL CUDDY is a political media consultant and documentary filmmaker in Seattle.

CALIFORNIA VOTERS beware. Commercials praising Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have been hitting California television, extolling his record and saying that his "heart" is "in the right place" for "the hard work ahead." They sound remarkably like Schwarzenegger's own reelection spots. They are actually a product of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its undisclosed corporate donors, who are intent on electing anti-consumer candidates across the nation.

In tone, the ads are warm and fuzzy, but the chamber isn't above switching to a more cutthroat style.

I know, because an attack campaign financed and directed by the chamber destroyed a candidate I worked for in Washington state.

It began in early September 2004, just two weeks before the state's primary election. I was the media consultant to Deborah Senn, a Democratic candidate for attorney general who had been a state insurance commissioner and a respected consumer advocate.

She was comfortably ahead of her primary opponent in the polls when the attack began: a morning TV ad, sponsored by a group we'd never heard of, that demonized Senn and distorted her record as insurance commissioner. It portrayed her tough settlements with fraudulent insurance companies as sweetheart deals.

At first, I thought it would be easy to figure out who did it, but I was soon at a dead end. The public logs at TV stations revealed that the ad time had been bought by a media placement firm out of Washington, D.C., for the so-called Voters Education Committee.

This could hardly be the work of our primary opponent because the cost of the broadcast time alone was nearly $750,000. Public records showed that no candidate -- Republican or Democrat -- had much more than $300,000 in the bank.

Who was pouring that amount of money into this "down-ballot" race? Who was this Voters Education Committee? It didn't appear anywhere in the state's election disclosure database.

These were supposed to be "issue ads" (ads not funded by the candidates and that don't encourage voters to vote for or against a particular candidate). That generally means the donors don't have to be disclosed and spending limits don't apply. In total, the Voters Education Committee purchased $1.5 million of vicious advertising targeting Senn.

She won the primary, barely. But the ads' relentless negativity had battered our campaign. Our response was limited by time and our finances. We lost in the general election.

Afterward, state election officials took on the secretive Voters Education Committee for violating campaign disclosure laws. A Superior Court judge agreed that the committee was in the wrong. In his view the ads constituted "express advocacy" against Senn, and the committee should have registered and disclosed its backers.

THAT DECISION IS on appeal. But in the meantime, what happened to Senn's campaign was finally clear. In sworn testimony, agents of the committee acknowledged that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce not only paid for the ad purchase but directed the planning, polling, research, script writing and production that went into it.

As it turns out, since 2000 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its advocacy arm, the Institute for Legal Reform, have spent more than $200 million to influence legislation and elections, most often at the state and local levels and most often without revealing itself or its donors to voters. The chamber's president, Thomas Donohue, talked about his strategy for electing business-friendly, anti-liability-lawsuit judges and state attorneys general in a July 2003 Forbes magazine article: "We led. We succeeded. Now the money is rolling in from drug companies, heavy manufacturers, large retailers, insurance companies, even banks."

Given Donohue's public statements, it's difficult to understand why the chamber went to such lengths to disguise its activities in Washington and in other states. Still, Washington state's court actions may be the reason that the chamber is taking open credit for the California ads.

Not that it's transparent. Shielded by "issue ad" laws, the chamber isn't disclosing its donors. Instead, The Times did. In a story last Sunday, Peter Nicholas reported that the chamber's ads have been "bankrolled partly by a group with deep ties to [Schwarzenegger's] political operation."

Once again, by spending money through the chamber, donors are getting around disclosure rules and contribution limits. And the chamber may be able to add a California governor to its list of friendly politicians.

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