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Super Hack: Why Now Might Be a Good Time for Us to Talk About Campaign Finance Reform

Remember that time an ex-California lobbyist set up a PAC attack to assist the candidate who loves to run against California? How about the political operative who turned violent at a campaign event? And what are we to make of the “total recall” that was never to be because the signatures were never really there?

Now may we please, pretty please, address the root cause behind all of this?

Act I: Surprise, it’s Karen England
Photo by Andrew Davey

Yesterday, we dug into the history behind the shadowy Facebook ad that attacks Gubernatorial candidate Steve Sisolak (D) for supporting transgender students’ civil rights. As soon as I noticed a familiar figure commenting on it all over social media, my sixth sense went into overdrive. This morning, The Nevada Independent‘s Riley Snyder confirmed my sixth sense when he found additional evidence pointing to religious right lobbyist Karen England as the lead culprit behind the attack ad.

So why did it have to take multiple journalists traipsing through a virtual paper trail to figure out England’s involvement in the attack ad? A big reason for that is Nevada election law.

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity gave Nevada a “F” grade in good governance, largely thanks to our “Wild West” campaign finance laws that limit disclosure and have few limits on outside groups’ ability to influence elections. Think of Sheldon Adelson’s “shadow Republican Party”, currently known as Secure Nevada’s Future. While Karen England’s operation may be much less sophisticated, she has a similar goal in mind with “Nevada Parents for Safe Schools”.

Act II: The “reporter” who became the story

Nearly a year ago, Fairfax County Police came under fire for their use of force in arresting reporter Mike Stark covering Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie’s (R) visit to Annandale, Virginia. While some free speech advocacy groups criticized Fairfax County Police for their conduct, Stark was later convicted in a Virginia court for disorderly conduct (he broke a Virginia statute restricting profane language in public spaces).

This wasn’t Stark’s first heated confrontation with a candidate or public official he was covering, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last. While Stark presented himself as a reporter, he’s actually done what political operatives call “tracking”, or closely following candidates anywhere possible to obtain “oppo footage” that can later be used in attack ads.

Last November Stark worked for ShareBlue Media, an organization that’s dedicated to promoting Democrats. Up until yesterday Stark worked for American Bridge, a Democratic Super PAC. Both organizations are under the purview of Democratic activist and media guru David Brock.

On Monday Stark forcefully grabbed and twisted the arm of Kristin Davison, Gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt’s (R) campaign manager, at a Republican campaign event at East Las Vegas Community Center. He’s since been arrested by Las Vegas Metro Police and charged with battery. Stark was later released on bail, but he was also fired by American Bridge.

Act III: Recall the recall that was, is, and likely will never to be
Photo by Andrew Davey

For well over a year, Nevada Republicans have been trying to make the recalls of three Democratic-affiliated women State Senators happen. Though they ultimately failed to collect enough signatures to recall Senators Joyce Woodhouse (D-Henderson), Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), and Patricia Farley (NP-Summerlin South), Republican leaders are appealing all the way to the Nevada Supreme Court in a last-ditch attempt to revive the recalls of Woodhouse and Cannizzaro.

This week, state auditors released a report showing that if the Secretary of State’s office had undergone a more thorough review of submitted recall petitions, they would have never found enough valid signatures to qualify any of the recalls (as Judge Jerry Wiese ultimately determined in district court).

The Republican State Legislative Committee (RSLC) helped in-state Republicans bankroll the recalls, while the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) raised nearly $1 million to oppose the recalls. Because proponents weren’t required to state why they felt recalls were required, they were able to claim the recalls were needed to “stop sanctuary cities” (again, why?) and “say no to higher taxes” (that were raised with bipartisan support at the behest of Governor Brian Sandoval [R]). And if it weren’t for the lawsuit that landed in Judge Wiese’s courtroom, this process could have dragged on and led to the kind of multimillion-dollar recall campaigns that have plagued Wisconsin and California in recent years.

Act IV: The scandals may be new, but the underlying root of them is not
Photo by Andrew Davey

Over seven years ago, I wrote about the underlying cause of so many of the sleazy scandals that have unfolded here:

“[W]hy would any of us really be surprised? This is the system we have, and the politicians who raise the most corporate money are rewarded. Already, we are hearing of ‘OUTRAGE!!!’ over this… But this is merely the symptom. Hardly anyone in Carson City wants to talk about the disease.”

Over four years ago, I revisited this issue amidst another round of sleazy scandals:

“If we want to end this dizzying feeling we sense when viewing the dirty reality of Nevada politics, we must stop the merry-go-round of corruption. And the only way to truly stop it is to end the seemingly endless flow of dirty money into all aspects of our political system.”

Now that we have a shady lobbyist running a Facebook campaign of unbridled transphobia, a Super PAC funded “reporter” facing battery charges, and the seemingly never-ending recall campaigns based on anything but actual facts or sound policy, can we finally talk about real solutions to this very real problem? “Clean money”, anyone? Or at the very least, might we consider stronger transparency standards that help us shine a light on these “dark money” activities?

It’s one thing to complain about the symptoms, and another thing entirely to actually treat the disease.

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