The Perils of Campaign Finance

By Richard Davis

If you want some insight into the problems that current campaign finance laws create, the Vermont Democratic primary for the U.S. House may prove instructive. Windham County Senator Becca Balint and Lt. Governor Mollie Gray squared off in what proved to be a lopsided race. Balint handily defeated Gray. If Balint wins the general election she will be the first woman and first openly gay member of Vermont’s congressional delegation.

According to VT Digger, ” …LGBTQ Victory Fund, which spent just shy of $1 million on Balint’s behalf in the race, had recently benefited from a $1.1 million donation from Nishad Singh, a top executive at the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The political action committee’s financial disclosures make clear that the lion’s share of the outside spending supporting Balint’s run came from Singh’s donation.”

That kind of donation is legal but it is something that we don’t usually see in Vermont politics. That is a lot of money for any Vermont race. Media reports make it clear that Balint’s campaign did nothing illegal and that they were able to benefit from current campaign finance laws. What troubles me is the way Balint’s campaign dealt with this issue.

A story in the Seven Days newspaper explains that the PAC that used the money did not coordinate with the Balint campaign but they did note that language on Balint’s web site was nearly identical to language used by Chicago-area candidates who received money from the same PAC.

That PAC focuses on pandemic related issues as well as LGBTQ issues and Balint’s web site listed language similar to the PAC’s on pandemic issues before other health related topics that Seven Days calls “oddly specific”.

VT Digger noted that,” Through Silver, her campaign manager, Balint declined to be interviewed but responded to questions submitted in writing. She also criticized VT Digger’s questions. “The tone and insinuation implies that I have done something wrong, and I have not,” she said. Balint wrote that she did not know “this person” who had donated to the Victory Fund. And she noted that federal law prohibits her from coordinating with the independent expenditure arm of the Victory Fund, and she wrote multiple times that she had “no control” over their raising and spending. She also vigorously defended the organization. “The Victory Fund represents the broad LGBTQ community in this country, and it is giving a voice to so many, while it pushes back against a very hostile and homophobic political environment. I support their work,” she wrote.

The Digger piece goes on to say, “Asked what policy commitments, in light of the revelation of Singh’s donation, she would like to make to assure Vermonters of her independence, Balint notably made no mention of cryptocurrency. But she did forcefully call for campaign finance reform — something she has done many times before.”

My opinion is that Balint should have immediately called out the PAC money support as soon as she became aware of it. While she could not have stopped the support she could have made it clear that she does not want to be involved in that kind of politics. She did not get out in front of the issue and from what I can tell she did not comment on it until Vermont media made it an issue. She also used the fact that the PAC supports gay issues as a shield and said she supports their work which also could imply that she supports their big money tactics. She used this shield to try to paint Gray as anti-gay in her criticism of use of the PAC money.
If Balint supports the work of this PAC she cannot say she stands behind their support of gay issues and then criticize the use of what has come to be known as dark money. It’s almost as if she is implying that the ends justify the means because it is a gay rights group.

In the same VT Digger piece it was explained that, “Molly Gray is very close to saying, you know, ‘We don’t want a gay agenda,’” Balint campaign manager Natalie Silver told VTDigger in a late July interview. “She’s calling these ‘special interests.’ These aren’t special interests. These are gay people. This is the LGBTQ community. This isn’t beet farmers. This isn’t big ag. This isn’t oil. These are people who are afraid for their lives right now.”

If not for Seven Days and VT Digger Balint’s campaign may have simply let things go. It is extremely troubling that Balint refused to be interviewed by VT Digger. If she makes it to Washington is that the way she will behave when she wants to control an issue? Written comments are not enough when it comes to accountability to voters. We need to move beyond adversarial relationships with the media.

Balint is not the kind of politician that Vermonters have relied on for transparency and for supporting issues most important to voters. It is clear to me that Balint will do whatever it takes to get elected and that is not a candidate I can support.

Comments | 7

  • You left this out, Richard.

    “I didn’t want this money to be spent on my behalf. I don’t think it’s healthy for democracy to have this kind of money involved in elections. That’s why I will push hard for campaign finance reform when I, hopefully, win in November and am able to serve in Congress,” she (Becca) said.

    You cut Becca’s quote from the vtdigger article, leaving out this piece, which gives a fuller picture of her response to the unsolicited donation.

  • Response

    She should have made that comment when the issue came to light, not when the media forced her to make a statement. Did she make an effort to publicly denounce the PAC money when she first knew about it? If she did, then I am wrongly criticizing her. It is my opinion that this was handled poorly and that is an important issue.

  • Spend enough and we can stop spending

    We got large color-printed mailings from those PACs sent almost daily for a while. It became a joke after a while… “hey did you hear, Becca is running for office!” Why, yes. Yes, I did!

    Coincidentally, VPR had a segment that featured some progressive PACS the other day. The guy said that while they want money out of politics, the current rules are that money can be in there and they have to compete. His pitch was that they are spending a fortune on campaigns to elect enough people to pass campaign finance reform. Once enough are elected, campaign finance reform can happen and then the money goes away.

    Not sure I trust this, but I understand what he was saying.

    As for the Balint issue, I got the message that she wasn’t behind these ad buys, but I didn’t get any strong sense that she was terribly opposed to the assistance. Didn’t hear any strong condemnations.

    I did get the sense Gray was opposed to it… : )

  • The 'once I get in office' syndrome

    Over the 50 years I’ve paid attention, we’ve heard this claim over and over again. Never believed it before (because it never happens) and I don’t believe it now.

  • From vtdigger interview with 7 Days news editor

    Sasha Goldstein: The Balint campaign says it did not know anything about this independent expenditure spending. That’s in the federal rules—you’re not allowed to coordinate with a group making independent expenditures. And after the spending started but before we knew who was behind it, Balint did come out and denounce it. (link below)

    Richard, you asked: “Did she make an effort to publicly denounce the PAC money when she first knew about it? If she did, then I am wrongly criticizing her.”

    Looks like you are wrongly criticizing her.

  • Timing

    She denounced the money after the media forced her to do so. I don’t see a comment prior to media inquiry. That is my issue.

    • Act vs. React

      I agree, she could have addressed this right away. But she didn’t. You are rightly criticizing her.

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