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November 05, 2012

With 60-Second Ad, "Anti-Super PAC" Super PAC Tries to Get Super PACs Out of Vermont. Kind of.

If you're jamming out to WCAX's election night coverage Tuesday, you might find yourself watching this 60-second ad from Vermont's favorite lefty super PAC, Priorities PAC:


According to Priorities PAC consultant Todd Bailey, the group paid roughly $3000 to produce the ad and another $1500 to air it — just once — on election night. He said they may re-purpose it down the road to support the super PAC's advocacy work in the Statehouse.

What kind of advocacy work, you ask? To put super PACs out of business, of course!

Well, not exactly.

Bailey — a lobbyist for KSE Partners and the purple-shirted, bald-headed guy who stars in the ad — concedes there's nothing the super PAC can do in Vermont to end super PACs. But it may fight to require such groups to disclose donations within 24 hours — as Priorities PAC already does voluntarily — or require disclaimers making clear that a given ad was financed by a super PAC.

"It doesn't solve the problem," Bailey says. "The only solution to the problem is to end unlimited spending on elections. But it at least informs the voting public what entity is paying for what, and they can make a decision on their own whether they want to trust something coming from someone who's raising money from unlimited sources."

Of course this very ad was financed by a group that raises money from unlimited sources: Priorities PAC has taken $20,000 already from Shelburne real estate developer and philanthropist Lisa Steele (she donated another $15,000 to Vermont Priorities, the group's nonprofit arm).

And, as we've written before, Priorities PAC actually played a significant role in the explosion of super PACs in this state. It became the first such organization to register in Vermont last July; a week later, Attorney General Bill Sorrell responded by issuing new guidance essentially throwing out fundraising and spending restrictions for independent expenditure-only political action committees — basically green-lighting super PACs in Vermont.

Its anti-super PAC rhetoric aside, Priorities PAC has acted an awful lot like a regular old super PAC this election season. It raised $29,700 from a handful of wealthy individuals and companies — and then spent $16,000 of it on TV ads supporting Democratic State Treasurer Beth Pearce.

As state treasurer, of course, Pearce is not in a position to do anything about ending super PACs. So why didn't the anti-super PAC super PAC invest in, say, legislative races or the gubernatorial race or Vermont's federal races, where their candidates could actually do something about ending super PACs?

"Priorities PAC set out very early on as its mission not only to end super PACs, but to support candidates who support issues they care about," Bailey explains. "There was always a dual mission: End super PACs, but defend candidates who should be elected to whatever office. It wasn't exclusively about ending super PACs."

But, um, aren't those two missions at odds with one another?

"There's a belief there that you, one, have to maintain good elected officials in office while fighting to end super PACs," Bailey says, "And they may seem, as you put it, 'at odds with one another,' or as other people put it, hypocritical,' but there's a belief within Priorities PAC that if you don't fight fire with fire, Vermont is likely to end up with candidates all from one side of the political spectrum."

Isn't it a little odd that a group striving to get money out of politics would make its on-camera spokesman a guy who's paid money to influence public policy? After all, Bailey works for one of the most powerful lobbying shops in the state. According to the Secretary of State's lobbyist registry, his clients include Green Mountain Power, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont, VISA, Hewlett-Packard and many others (including, we should note, a number of nonprofits and municipalities).

We asked Bailey if that sent a bit of a mixed message.

"Our message is to get money out of democracy as it relates to elections," he says. "If you look at Vermont Priorities' or Priorities PAC's website, there is a sole focus on the electoral process."

Got it. So they're trying to get super PACs out of elections — but they're certainly not trying to get lobbyists out of Montpelier.


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