The top Democratic commissioner at the bipartisan Federal Election Commission is traveling to battleground states weeks before November’s midterm elections, engaging in what a former commissioner and an FEC observer call an “unprecedented” and “totally inappropriate” attempt to ignite public opposition to the Citizens United decision and promote Democratic positions on campaign finance.
Ann Ravel is vice chairman of the FEC, a six-member commission tasked with regulating campaign-finance laws in the United States. Composed of three Republicans and three Democrats, the commission’s chairmanship rotates each year, with Ravel’s term beginning in 2015.
Earlier this month, Ravel launched a nationwide “listening tour” entitled “The Future of Elections and Democracy.” Billed as a chance for the public to ask questions and air their concerns about campaign finance to the FEC, the forum took Ravel to Denver on October 9 and to Chicago on October 14. She will travel to Atlanta on October 23.
The vice chairman said she would be there only to listen, with no preconceived notions about what she would hear. But her public comments and the concurrent media push indicate a one-sided campaign against “dark money” and in support of stricter electoral-finance laws deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Ravel’s appearances were planned to exclude the other five FEC commissioners, an unusual move criticized by those who believe that the bipartisan commission should operate as a unit when informing the public. And the timing and location of the meetings — weeks before elections in key battleground states — lend a political cast to the commissioner’s “listening tour.”
During her talk at the University of Chicago on October 14, Ravel took a shot at her absent Republican counterparts, claiming that they “do not believe in enforcement” of federal election laws. Blasting the “inequality of the speech” she sees in relaxed campaign-finance restrictions, the commissioner admitted her intent to sway public opinion. “It’s nice to be here on a college campus,” she said. “I think to get people involved is really important, because obviously the [Supreme] Court is going the other way.”
Ravel’s October 9 appearance at the University of Colorado Denver was followed by a minor media blitz on the issue of so-called dark money. She spoke with Colorado Public Radio directly after the forum, where she again slammed her Republican colleagues. “There is a group [on the commission] opposed to any investigations, and then there is a group that believes we need to follow the law,” she said. And on October 12 she published an op-ed in a Boulder, Colo., newspaper, lamenting the “deluge of anonymous political spending” and urging that “Colorado voices” be heard on the issue.
Locked in a close reelection battle, Colorado Democratic senator Mark Udall sponsored a campaign-finance bill that pushes the same themes promoted by Ravel. The vulnerable lawmaker has been heavily targeted by “dark money” groups this election cycle.
In Georgia, Ravel’s next stop, the campaign of Democratic Senate hopeful Michelle Nunn has also trumpeted support for stricter campaign-finance laws. The candidate signed a petition urging that Citizens United be overturned, decrying the “flood of secret, unlimited special-interest money into our elections.” Like Udall’s race, Nunn’s is extremely tight.
Outside observers believe that Ravel’s visits to battleground states mere weeks before the midterms are no fluke. Was the tour designed to affect Senate politics in particular states? “Of course,” says former Republican commissioner Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation. “How else do you explain the locations?”
“What she is doing is totally inappropriate,” von Spakovsky says, criticizing Ravel for pushing partisan political goals without other commissioners to provide balance. “I don’t think this is the way things should be done at the FEC, which can only operate when commissioners get together. . . . I don’t think money from the FEC budget should be spent allowing one commissioner to go around the country when other commissioners aren’t going with her.”
Ravel’s top lawyer, Leonard Evans, tells National Review Online that the vice chairman was invited by the universities to speak while other commissioners were not. He said that each invitation was vetted and approved by the commission and that Ravel attended in her official capacity, with the commission paying only for the October 23 trip to Atlanta. And, he says, Ravel “worked with each host on dates so that the events could be scheduled during a three-week period of time.” He did not explain why it was so important to cram the engagements into that three-week period.
“Why the rush to do it now?” asks a Washington lawyer very familiar with FEC operations. “It’s either for pure self-promotion or the decision to play politics, or maybe a little bit of both.”
The lawyer accuses Ravel of “trying to gin up the academic Left in states where there’s hot races, where so-called ‘outside groups’ are spending big. . . . Although it’s being held out as an FEC thing, it’s not. It’s one commissioner. It’s not like the commission as a whole has decided to go out to do this.”
“It’s unprecedented,” he says. “I’ve never seen a commissioner do anything like this. It really looks bad.”
— Brendan Bordelon is an editorial associate at National Review Online.