Senator Murphy decries influence of money in politics

Before the Greenwich Bar Association, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed great concern about the disappearance of campaign finance regulation and what that would mean for elections in the future.

Before the Greenwich Bar Association, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) expressed great concern about the disappearance of campaign finance regulation and what that would mean for elections in the future.

Greenwich is not a community that’s shy when it comes to opening the checkbook for political donations, but U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) came to town looking to close them.

Mr. Murphy was the keynote speaker at the Greenwich Bar Association’s celebration of Law Day 2014 on May 16 at the Indian Harbor Yacht Club. While Mr. Murphy is not only the son of an attorney but a licensed lawyer himself, it was his current career in the Senate that was on his mind as he talked about the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which flung open the door to the creation of Super PACs and limits on campaign spending by individuals disappearing.

“I believe this is the new assault on the freedom for individuals to participate in an equal manner in our democracy,” Mr. Murphy said. “That’s really what voting is about. It’s about this really revolutionary idea that everybody in this country, regardless of your income or your ability to own land or your sex or your religion, should be able to have an equal say in government. No matter how much money you have or your position in life, you get one vote. Nobody gets more than one and nobody gets less.”

Mr. Murphy said that the current way of funding political campaigns threatens that concept. Calling it a crisis that the legal community needed to focus on, Mr. Murphy said this was eroding the foundation of democracy because people with more money than others were given more say.

“It can directly impact policy,” Mr. Murphy said. “The people who give money tend to get more say in policy and it erodes the efficiency of government itself… This year, Super PACs, these big, shadowy political organizations, will spend more money in elections all across the country than individual candidates will spend. There are only a handful of people all across this country who fund those Super PACs, meaning 170 individuals give 60% of the money to these Super PACs.”

Mr. Murphy said the founding fathers never intended for such a small group of individuals to have that much power over the political process for the entire country. In his remarks, he touched on the recent meetings held by hotel and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson who had potential Republican 2016 presidential candidates like Jeb Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker personally come to him so he could decide which one to fund, but Mr. Murphy said there were instances of this from Democratic donors as well.

“You have to figure that if they’re going to accept that amount of money from [Mr. Adelson] they’re going to be expected to deliver something in return,” Mr. Murphy said. “When that small a number of people are funding elections in that fundamental a way it erodes the one person/one vote concept.”

Post Citizens United, the Supreme Court has made other rulings changing campaign finance laws and Mr. Murphy said he believed those laws would soon be completely gone, meaning there would be no regulations how people could give to political candidates and how much. Mr. Murphy said this “perverts the process” and cited the amount of money spent to block gun law reforms he championed after the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School even though polls show 80-90% of people want the kind of universal background checks that can keep guns out of the hands of criminals.

Mr. Murphy said this was also an issue when it came to college aid in the country, claiming there were a “handful of for-profit colleges in this country who are delivering miserable results to students.” But, despite the high costs and poor results of these schools, taxpayers give more than a billion dollars in federal financial aid to them, because lobbyists and donations assure that members of Congress keep the deal in place.

But there was also a more personal impact he said he’s seen first-hand. Mr. Murphy said members of Congress are so busy fund raising they not only don’t have chances to interact and build bipartisan relationships, but they’re also put at odds against each other so they can raise money.

“People complain that politics have become so partisan and that all we do is argue and fight with each other,” Mr. Murphy said. “They’re right in all those critiques and there are a number of reasons why that is, but at the root of it is money. At the root of it is each candidate, immediately upon getting elected, to go out and start raising money for the next election. And the best way to raise money is to create an oppositional force on the other side. I’m free to tell you that when I send out a fund-raising email I receive three times as much money when I send an email saying how terrible the Republicans are rather than an email about how good I am. People give more money because they are scared of something else.”

Mr. Murphy noted how he had traveled earlier this year to Alabama and Mississippi with U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an icon for his work during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to mark remembrance of key events including the assassination of Medger Evers, who was murdered for working to make sure blacks could freely vote. He said the driveway of Mr. Evers’ house still had the bloodstains from his shooting and that a look in the bedroom of his children showed that they slept on mattresses on the floor so they were below window level because of how frequently the family was targeted.

“You get the sense that we shouldn’t take the right to vote for granted any second of any day,” Mr. Murphy said.

Mr. Murphy said he wasn’t equating campaign finance to the civil rights movement, but he brought it up to show how, when facing a much bigger obstacle, people put their lives on the line to fight for the right to vote. So he wondered why, when facing a “smaller, but still vexing problem” people didn’t demonstrate courage to fight it and preserve a fundamental tenet of democracy.

Law Day is an annual national event designed to celebrate the law and the attorneys who bring honor to it. The Greenwich Bar Association handed out two awards during the event, giving Dorothy Freeburg the Robert G. Krause Probate Pro Bono award for her “diligence, compassion and professionalism” in the emotional and difficult area of probable cause matters in probate cases where someone is accused of having psychiatric disabilities. The Liberty Bell Award, which goes to a non-lawyer community member who has fostered a sense of civic responsibility, went to Chitra Sahandbogue, executive director of Community Answers Inc.

But Mr. Murphy’s discussion of campaign finance was not out of character for the day. Daniel Fitzgerald, president of the Greenwich Bar Association, explained that the theme of the luncheon was “Every vote matters” and encouraged the attorneys there, as well as guests like Selectman David Theis and Chief of Police James Heavey, to think about the advances made in the law to create and preserve voting rights for citizens without discrimination due to race, religion or gender.

“Protecting the right to vote is part of our obligation,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “This year’s theme should cause each of us to reflect on voting rights in our own community.”

 

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