Guy Bowers imagines his phone ringing off the hook if New Mexico were to return to the days of contributors giving unlimited amounts of money to political campaigns.
In 2012, Sanchez survived an onslaught of attack ads and mailers paid for by groups affiliated with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and her political consultant, Jay McCleskey. Removing limits would give him and other political candidates a weapon in the monetary arms race that elections have become, where outside groups swoop in to dump money in a contested political race, he said.
There could be additional reasons for Sanchez's proposal. Before limits were New Mexico law, large campaign contributions went to leadership political action committees run by legislative leaders, who used the money to shore up power each election cycle: they distributed dollars to legislative candidates of their own choosing.
But Sanchez views the issue of campaign contributions through a more personal lens, he said.
“Who knows how much they would want to spend against me” in next year’s election, Sanchez said of the governor and McCleskey.
The governor’s office did not respond to Sanchez’s comments despite a spokesperson telling a reporter it would provide a statement. The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up phone calls or voicemails.
Bowers’ phone use might rise exponentially if Sanchez’s bill were to become law.
From 2011 to 2014, the Las Vegas, Nev. man, who lived more than 30 years in Ruidoso, gave nearly $475,000 to Republican candidates and causes, making him New Mexico’s No. 2 largest political donor during that period. He starting giving a few years ago because he didn’t like the direction the country was moving, he said. He has focused much of his giving on preserving gun rights.
“I envision people who would like to receive campaign contributions taking a look at any list and seeing who they are, putting them to the top of the list for their minions to contact,” Bowers said by phone last Wednesday. “That would just be human nature.”
“I understand that campaigns are costly and expensive to run,” he said. “But I don’t like the idea of me or anybody else buying their way into influencing an election or buying outcomes. I don’t like the idea of having influence of campaign outcomes or votes by a candidate.”The prospect of more solicitations, coupled with what he acknowledges is the potential for his giving to influence the outcomes of political races, makes him uneasy, Bowers said.
The move by Sanchez to repeal New Mexico’s campaign contribution limits coincides with what, by most accounts, appears to be disaffection among large swaths of the public for how political races are financed in New Mexico and across the nation.
A recent poll commissioned by Common Cause New Mexico found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed supported limits on contributions and an even larger slice of those surveyed believed limits help prevent corruption. The Legislature’s decision to cap contributions, which went into effect after the 2010 election, followed a series of political scandals, some of which made national news.
Long-time advocates show anxiety at talk of repeal this session.
“Common Cause New Mexico worked for years to get contribution limits in place back in 2009, and we do not support repealing them,” said Viki Harrison, Common Cause New Mexico’s Executive Director.
Tension between deep-seated American values
On one level, the discussion at New Mexico’s state capitol, known as the Roundhouse, focuses simply on how much and in what form money enters politics. On another, however, the debate reveals a fundamental tension between deep-seated American values, said Lonna Atkeson, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.
“A basic principle of electoral democracy is ‘one person, one vote,’” Atkeson explained. “You go into a booth and you vote. That’s a fact.”
How New Mexico and the rest of the nation funds political elections is based on a separate principle: one where money gives those who have it a greater opportunity to influence the outcome of elections, she said.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that money equals free speech and that is not going to change. It is established law. But money can lead to advantage, Atkeson said.
“It’s not always that people who spend the most money win, but it’s often the case,” she said.
It’s a friction Mark Veteto acknowledges.
From 2011 to 2014, Veteto gave more than $150,000 to political campaigns, ranking him eighth on a list of New Mexico’s top 10 political donors.
In an ideal world, a person working at McDonald’s who gives $50 to a candidate and a person who gives $10,000 would exercise the same influence, the Hobbs oilman said.
“I have a sensitive heart, but the reality is that we live in a capitalistic society,” Veteto said.
The remedy to the question of influence, he suggests, is disclosure rather than capping contributions. Exposing money to the disinfectant of public scrutiny would foster a more vigorous debate around issues and let the public decide whether those with deep pockets represent the public’s interest.
But in the 21st-century United States, an infusion of cash entering politics at the state and local levels can occur without a proportional rise in transparency. In other words, the public can’t always scrutinize or track the flow of money into politics.
Very large donors increasingly are choosing to use so-called “dark money” groups to hide their contributions. These “social welfare” groups –501(c)4 nonprofits are a common incarnation – can engage in politics as long it does not become their primary focus. As long as they abide by those rules, these groups don’t have to turn over the names of all their donors.
“If I give you $1 million and you are a state official, people need to know that,” Veteto said. “The issue is not capping contributions. It’s who the hell is writing the checks? I can’t find out who is writing the checks. And I’m a big donor.”
Veteto is not the only business person in New Mexico to say New Mexico needs more disclosure. A poll by the Committee for Economic Development, a Virgina-based public policy organization, found in February that 71 percent of New Mexico business leaders “feel that a great deal more or some more transparency is needed regarding the disclosure of political contributions.” And nearly 90 percent told the Albuquerque-based Research & Polling Inc. that they “somewhat or strongly support requiring all political contributions and expenditures from individuals, corporations, political action committees (PACs), non-profits, or unions be made public.”
Disclosing how some 'dark money' is spent
States can’t require “dark money” groups to disclose all their donors. But states can pry open the doors a little, which is what advocates hope New Mexico will do this session under a bill that would expose so-called “dark money” groups to greater sunlight.
House Bill 278, sponsored by GOP Rep. Jim Smithof Sandia Park, would require certain groups that currently don’t have to report where their money comes from to disclose the names of donors whose dollars are used for political purposes as long as those amounts are above certain dollar thresholds.
The New Mexico state senate has passed a proposal that would require more disclosure of these “dark money” groups three times in recent years. The question mark in 2015 is the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
With less than a week to go in this year's legislative session -- Saturday is the final day, Smith's proposal is before its third House committee, House Judiciary. If it passes there, the full House must vote on it. Should it clear that hurdle, it would head to the Senate, which also must approve the proposal for it to make it to the governor's desk.
“If people want to get dark money out into the daylight then they (the Legislature) should pass it, if everybody is sincere about it,” Sanchez, the powerful Democrat, said of Smith’s proposal.
Requiring such groups to disclose the source of funds they spend on politics would be a step toward transparency in a state not known much for sharing how politics – or government – works.
In December, the National Institute on Money in State Politics gave New Mexico an F – one of four states to earn zeroes across all categories – for not requiring independent groups to report spending to influence elections.
New Mexico’s F follows the D- the state received in 2012 for its lax campaign finance laws from the State Integrity Investigation, a collaboration of the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity, and Public Radio International.
“It depends on the marching orders that they get from the Fourth or Fifth floor,” Sanchez said of the House’s Republican leadership and whether it would push for more campaign disclosure.
The governor’s office is on the Fourth floor of the state Capitol. “Fifth floor” is the nickname some Democrats and others use for McCleskey.
Republican House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, of Albuquerque, dismissed Sanchez’s accusation that the governor called the shots for the House’s GOP leadership.
He acknowledged, however, the difficulty of tracking money in elections these days.
“What we’ve seen after a lot of caps went into place, it’s a game of whack-a-mole, “ Gentry said. “Money pops up in all these independent shadowy … committees and c4s to do issue advocacy.”
Smith, the GOP sponsor, said he expects support from both sides of the aisle for his proposal.
“I’m sure … you’re going to have some people on the right or the left – they’re going to say it’s impacting them,” Smith said of outside money spent to take out lawmakers.
As for returning to the days of no limits on campaign contributions, as Sanchez, the Democratic Majority Leader, has proposed, Smith is unnerved by the possibility. The proposal is before the Senate Judiciary Committee, according to the New Mexico Legislature's website.
“It makes me nervous,” he said. “That just encourages larger flow of money into campaigns. Personally, I’m in a district. It’s a fairly safe district. I don’t worry about big expenditures or throwing a lot of money into a campaign.”
But if someone who was able to bring in giant contributions challenged him, “I couldn’t compete. The public wants more limitations on the money that is flowing into the elections,” he said.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between New Mexico In Depth, KUNM and NMPBS, People, Power and Democracy, that attempts to pull back the curtain on how the New Mexico Legislature works and, in some cases, doesn’t. It's funded by the Thornburg Foundation and the Loeks Family Fund.