Rhode Island corporation’s PAC plans to work to elect Michael Ray Huerta and test the limits of Citizens United ruling
A Rhode Island corporation is forming a political action committee that will work to elect Las Cruces mayoral candidate Michael Ray Huerta in a move that’s designed to push the limits of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case.
Bobby Oliveira said his corporation’s left-leaning Total Newport Campaign PAC doesn’t intend to file finance reports disclosing funding sources and spending in Rhode Island or New Mexico. He said he expects that to lead to legal battles in both states but believes the secrecy will withstand legal scrutiny.
Oliveira said conservatives are taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United – which essentially said corporations and unions can spend unlimited amounts of money to support or attack candidates. He cited the Koch brothers’ funding of tea party activities and the effort to kill unions in Wisconsin.
“If the Koch brothers can do it, so can we,” Oliveira said.
If Oliveira backs up his words with action, his PAC could significantly change the dynamics in the Las Cruces mayoral race. Oliveira said the PAC will operate an independent expenditure in Las Cruces that can’t legally coordinate with Huerta. The PAC will knock on every door in the city twice, send out mailers in support of Huerta in the final two weeks of the campaign, and respond to any negative attacks against him, Oliveira said.
He has already brought on political activist Georgi Blumenthal of Las Cruces, who had been a volunteer on Huerta’s campaign, to work for the PAC.
Battle over disclosure is already brewing
Oliveira said the combination of weak campaign finance law in New Mexico and the Citizens United ruling means he can raise and spend what he wants in the mayoral race without disclosing any of it. In fact, he said New Mexico campaign finance law was one of the factors that led him to decide to support Huerta.
But Las Cruces City Clerk Esther Martinez said city ordinance requires that the PAC file a statement of organization and finance reports. The ordinance defines a political action committee as “every two or more persons who are selected, appointed, chosen or associated for the purpose of, wholly or in part, supporting or opposing a candidate at any election,” including corporations.
The ordinance requires that such committees file finance reports with the city. Martinez said she’ll be in contact with Blumenthal to notify her of the requirements.
Steven Robert Allen, executive director of Common Cause New Mexico, said if city ordinance requires PACs to file finance reports, the Total Newport Campaign PAC would have to do so.
“To the extent that this group exists entirely to support a candidate, they’re going to have to disclose their funding if city law requires them to, and there isn’t anything in Citizens United that says otherwise,” Allen said. “Quite the contrary, eight of the nine justices in that opinion gave an endorsement to broad disclosure requirements when it comes to this type of independent expenditure.”
Oliveira said he expects officials in Rhode Island and New Mexico to try to force him to file finance reports. He said he also expects threats and potentially lawsuits from the other mayoral candidates. He said he welcomes the chance to argue his case in court.
Having to ‘play politics’ to move Las Cruces forward
How did Oliveira end up focused on Las Cruces? He said some Huerta supporters worked with him in 2004 on Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. They became concerned that Huerta wasn’t raising enough money and decided to ask Oliveira for help after Huerta subjected himself to voluntary campaign contribution limits in a guest column published by NMPolitics.net.
Four Huerta-supporting Las Crucens involved in the PAC – Landon Richardson, Brad Wood, Anna Saenz and Anne Thompson – wrote in a letter released to the media that they “are very concerned that our preferred challenger, Michael Huerta, cannot overcome the powers of incumbency.”
“Please understand how much we love Las Cruces. We don’t like the idea that we have ‘play politics’ in order to move Las Cruces forward,” they wrote. “However, we are all adults and understand some sad realities about American democracy in 2011.”
Pressed for details about the PAC’s funding, Oliveira, a longtime Democratic activist in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, said this:
“I have deep connections in organized labor. I have deep connections in marriage equality. One of the corporate boards I serve on is a homeland security firm. The Total Newport corporation, which is being incorporated this year to set up the PAC, is involved in travel and tourism. So you can surmise from those things where our money’s coming from.”
He wouldn’t say more about funding or how much money he plans to spend in the mayoral race.
Miyagishima asks, will Huerta ‘stand by his convictions?’
In his recent NMPolitics.net commentary, Huerta called for “fairer, more transparent campaigns, and also wrote, “I strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, allowing corporations the ability to spend as much money as they would like to support or attack a candidate.”
Referring to that commentary, Miyagishima said it will be interesting to see how Huerta reacts to the PAC’s intentions.
“This would be the first true test,” Miyagishima said. “Does he stand by his convictions or does he allow this organization here to do what they want to do?”
Huerta said there’s not much he can say or do.
“Because it’s against the law for campaigns to coordinate with PACs, I won’t comment on what steps they should take in regards to reporting,” Huerta said. He added that he has never met Oliveira or the four Las Crucens who wrote the letter released by the PAC.
Huerta said he’s been actively raising money and already has more donors than Miyagishima did during the entire 2007 campaign. He said he’s honored to have support from so many people, including donors from 25 states and the Total Newport Campaign PAC.
Huerta said the PAC’s involvement should not distract from the issues in the campaign.
“This campaign should be about the future of Las Cruces and which candidate can best advocate on behalf of all Las Crucens,” he said. “It shouldn’t be about a political action committee. It shouldn’t be about Citizens United. It should be about making a Las Cruces that works for all families.”
Oliveira says out-of-state support won’t hurt Huerta
Oliveira said he doesn’t anticipate that his out-of-state support will turn voters away from Huerta.
“If your candidate’s message is strong and he or she is the right person, then the folks on the ground won’t be too upset with who delivers it,” Oliveira said. “I think they’ll respect Michael, they’ll respect his message, they’ll like him.”
Oliveira said his PAC has never supported a candidate in this manner, but he was looking to get into a race this year to test Citizens United before the 2012 election, when he plans to engage in issue advocacy in Rhode Island. His idea to put together a positive ground organization in favor of a candidate or issue came after he watched two initiatives regarding gay marriage and charter schools fail in Rhode Island. He said mismanagement plagued both.
“I started putting the building blocks together and, magically, the request from Las Cruces appeared,” he said. “… The Citizens United case opens up an invasion angle where you can take a failed political operation, especially if arrogance and amateurism are the reasons for the failure, and resuscitate it using proper methodology.”
“Rhode Island should have gay marriage and should have charter schools,” he said. “The effort in Las Cruces, ironic as that may be, could move Rhode Island closer to those goals.”