In 2002, a clique of radical Republicans backed by specific moneyed interests stormed the halls of power in Texas, winning every lever of state government. They now face their biggest challenge in six years. The current election cycle, and the one coming in 2010, will determine who controls legislative and congressional redistricting to be crafted and ratified by the 82nd Texas Legislature in 2011. As the demographics of the state rapidly shift away from traditional Republican constituencies, the only way this clique can extend its death grip on state government is by locking in gains through redistricting.
They obtained victory the first time-with the goal of controlling congressional redistricting-through the use of massive amounts of corporate cash and a smear campaign of questionable “issue ads” sent to voters and aired on television. Corporate money for electioneering has been illegal in the state for more than a century. The 2002 campaign, coordinated by the two Toms-DeLay and Craddick-became the focus of civil and criminal prosecutions that resulted in indictments and hefty fines. Subsequent bipartisan efforts to strengthen campaign finance laws in the Legislature floundered at Speaker Craddick’s door. Nonetheless, existing laws and the threat of further prosecutions seemed to offer some measure of protection from the dirty campaigning of six years ago. Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back to your mailbox, those protections are being stripped away.
A lawsuit by a group of conservative organizations, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, won an injunction to suspend the speaker’s statute enacted after the last wave of scandals in the 1970s. The statute forbids outside groups from spending money to influence the election of a speaker. While the state has never prosecuted anybody for violating the law, its removal will likely serve as a green light for the business interests that have profited so handsomely under Craddick’s rein to spend freely to defeat candidates who oppose him.
Court rulings have also imperiled the civil and criminal prosecutions. The Texas Association of Business was indicted on two counts for using $1.7 million from secret corporate sources-mostly big insurance companies, it was later revealed-for a series of shady issue ads in 2002. Several losing Democratic candidates also filed civil suits against the groups. Prosecutors and the civil lawsuits have argued that the issue ads are designed to defeat particular candidates and therefore qualify as electioneering. The TAB argued the issue ads were for educational purposes. As long as the ads don’t openly advocate for or against candidates (by using words like “defeat” or “elect”), they aren’t considered campaign material and can legally be funded with corporate money
On April 5, state District Judge Joe Hart dismissed the civil lawsuit filed against the TAB by former Democratic state Rep. Ann Kitchen, who lost her seat in 2002 after a series of TAB issue ads flooded her district on behalf of her opponent. A year ago, state District Judge Mike Lynch dismissed the criminal indictments of the TAB, a decision that Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle’s office is appealing.
While the debate over issue ads raged in court, many groups have viewed the issue ad strategy as too risky, because the law was unclear. But if the courts continue to side with the TAB-and the Legislature doesn’t clarify campaign finance law-then issue ads could come back with a vengeance. Recent court decisions have carved a path for corporate money in Texas elections that reform-minded Texans have tried to keep closed for more than a century. It’s time for a strong, clear, enforceable campaign finance law that stems the flow once and for all.