ROONEY: Trenton’s big ‘dark money’ battle is really about power, not disclosure

By Matt Rooney

You may’ve missed it with everything else going on in the world, Save Jerseyans, but the latest front in the epic Phil Murphy vs. South Jersey Democrat civil war is DARK MONEY.

Sounds ominous, right? Like something out of a spy novel or sci-fi fantasy. In reality, we’re talking about donations to non-profits that engage in public advocacy; at the moment, they don’t have to disclose their donors.

Many on both sides of the aisle complain that this lack of transparency is a big part of what’s presently wrong with our political system. Rich guys and powerful interests pour unlimited cash into groups which play an increasingly powerful role in everything from primary races to budget battles without telling us who funds them. The NJEA, for example, reportedly gave $2.5 million to a Murphy-aligned group without having to disclose it. The donation only came to light when a watchdog organization discovered mention of the donation in NJEA Delegate Assembly minutes.

Most people agree dark money isn’t a good idea.

But is there a strong First Amendment argument for allowing anonymous donations?

“We support the rights of all New Jerseyans to engage in the causes they believe in, and this legislation would make it harder,” opined Erica Jedynak, then-Americans for Prosperity state director, back in March 2019 as the state legislature advanced an anti-dark money bill. “This is a sad day for civic advocacy and charitable giving across the political spectrum. The government should make it easier for citizens to participate in civic life, not harder. That means that all citizens should have the ability to exercise free speech without fear of retaliation. Lawmakers have asserted that this legislation will increase government transparency, and while we agree that government should be more transparent, this should not come at the cost of an individual’s privacy. We urge the Governor to closely examine the harmful impact this legislation would have on our democracy and reconsider.”

The chilling effect. That’s one angle. Here’s something else to consider in addition to the free speech/preventing retaliation argument, Save Jerseyans:

Would it even make a difference?

Pardon me for being a bit cynical (I do live in New Jersey after all!), but it’s been well-publicized that the NJEA is a big money player in state politics. Is more disclosure going to change voter behavior? There’s no evidence to date that more transparency would. It might discourage some donations on the front end before they happen, that’s true, but special interests who stand to win (or lose) from the outcome of elections and legislative debates won’t be deterred by a little bad publicity. 

What this dark money battle is really all about: power.

Yes, Murphy vs. Norcross. Team B wants to give Team A another public relations black eye.

But it’s also about the waning power of political parties. As outside independent expenditure groups gain more political clout with the aid of dark money, the Republican and Democrat party establishments have found themselves in an increasingly precarious position. The county party chairman and treasurer, or that local official with a fat campaign account or strong local union ties, isn’t necessarily the kingmaker anymore. Any organization that can raise cash – from sources it doesn’t need to disclose – can play in the political system and help steer a debate.

Consider this: the original anti-dark money bill (which Murphy originally vetoed but will reportedly now sign as part of a compromise with legislative Dems) will permit county party committees to “wheel” larger sums of cash to circumvent the fundraising limits governing individual campaign committees. It’s easy to see why a boss-dominated legislature would prefer THIS outcome to one in which groups like AFP (on the right) and “progressive organizations” on the left continue to be on a somewhat equal playing field.

“Which system is better for our embattled democratic system? Are we better off with an almost libertarian-style campaign finance system? Or one with strong disclosure requirements and a reinforced two party system?

“Yes, the Democrats’ Ocasio-Cortez won her district as well as her primary. But she was the exception, because of the composition of her district. Progressive insurgents from more heterogeneous districts won their primaries but bit the dust Nov. 6: Kara Eastman in Omaha; Randy Bryce in southern Wisconsin; and Dana Balter in Syracuse, N.Y. A candidate-selection process that gave a stronger weight to the party would probably have chosen different candidates,” opined two guest columnists in a November 2018 Washington Post op-ed arguing for stronger parties.

Not everything is black or white. It is green. At least now, when drawing your own conclusions, you’ll make your decision knowing what this fight is REALLY about: POWER… specifically, who has the cash to wield it.


MATT ROONEY is a practicing New Jersey attorney, regular panelist on ‘Chasing News’ with Bill Spadea, and the founder and blogger-in-chief of Save Jersey.