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PIRGIM Education Fund
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By
Matt Vande Bunte

GRAND RAPIDS, MI – An East Grand Rapids native’s role in heading the country’s largest Super PAC was profiled Wednesday by The Detroit News.

Charles Spies, the son of a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Michigan, co-founded Restore Our Future, one of a new and growing breed of campaign finance organizations spawned by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling. The group has raised almost $97 million nationwide and spent more than $84 million on advertising that Spies said has "had a huge impact" on Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. The Detroit News report cites a leading Obama fundraiser saying that Romney would not be the Republican nominee if not for Spies.

But Super PACs like Restore Our Future are drawing criticism for how they allegedly give rich people a bigger voice in election campaigns than the average Joe. Unlike a traditional political action committee that limits the amount of money someone can contribute, super PACs do not have such restrictions (although they are not allowed to coordinate with official candidate campaigns).

An Ann Arbor-based advocacy and education group issued a report this year stating that "the vast majority of 2012 (political spending not done by candidate campaigns) is being conducted not by grassroots organizations that are aggregating the power and voices of thousands or millions of people making small political contributions, but rather by a small number of organizations that aggregate the power and voices of a tiny minority of wealthy individuals, businesses, or interest groups contributing sums that are well beyond the reach of average-earning citizens."

"A small number of wealthy individuals and institutions are using Super PACs to dominate the political process," said Meghan Hess, spokeswoman for the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan.

Restore Our Hope is the top political action committee in this election cycle with nearly double the spending of the runner-up, according to the Detroit News report. You canread the report here.

It states that Spies - an East Grand Rapids and University of Michigan alum who got his start in politics by working on a U.S. Senate race for Ronna Romney, the former wife of Mitt Romney's brother, Scott - wants a campaign finance system with unlimited direct contributions to candidates with immediate disclosure of donors.

While the Ann Arbor group's report lauds the transparency of Super PACs, it also asserts that unlimited political contributions are “distorting our democracy.” Federal Election Commission data shows that individual contributions to Restore Our Future commonly are six figures and more. For example, John Kennedy, president and CEO of Kentwood-based Autocam, contributed $100,000 to Restore Our Hope, according to federal records.

From the PIRGIM report:

“One might think of today’s outside spending groups as megaphones for moguls and millionaires. The more money they pump in, the louder they’re able to amplify their voices—until a relatively few wealthy individuals and interests are dominating our public square, drowning out the rest of us. This distortion violates our shared commitment to political equality and the principle of one-person, one-vote. It shapes a political system in which the size of a citizen’s wallet determines the strength of her voice.“We cannot maintain a democracy of equal citizens in the face of significant economic inequality if we allow those who are successful (or lucky) in the economic sphere to translate wealth directly into political power. Our democratic public sphere is where we set the terms for economic competition. It is where we decide—as equals—how much inequality, redistribution, regulation, pollution we will tolerate. These choices gain legitimacy from the fact that we all had the opportunity to have our say. If economic incumbents are able to rig the rules in favor of their own success it undermines the legitimacy of the economic relations in society.”

 

Among the recommendations in the PIRGIM report: amend the U.S. Constitution “to clarify that the First Amendment was never intended as a tool for use by corporations and the wealthy to dominate the political arena.” Five of seven Grand Rapids city commissioners recently sent Gov. Snyder a letter to that effect, urged on by the Grand Rapids chapter of a national movement that seeks a Constitutional amendment to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court ruling that created Super PACs.

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