Rauf Bolden: Understanding campaign finance laws and looking for additional financial disclosures

0
4
cash_loans_money

Campaign finance is a fluid topic, cascading down from the Oval Office to the smallest hamlet, affecting every facet of political life. Alabama’s Fair Campaign Practices Act (FCPA) is our guiding light.

Financial disclosures are mandatory.  In 2018, when Orange Beach Councilman Jeff Boyd ran for the Alabama State Senate, and Councilman Jerry Johnson ran for Baldwin County Commissioner they filed reports with the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office. Unfortunately, both campaigns flamed out in the Republican Primary.  

Still they raised significant amounts of money through small donors, according to the search results, but Alabama has different rules for corporate contributions. “22 states completely prohibit corporations from contributing to political campaigns.  Another six-Alabama, Missouri, Nebraska, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia-allow corporations to contribute an unlimited amount of money to state campaigns,” according to a report on the National Conference of State Legislators website.

“As of May 2015, individuals, corporations, and unions in Alabama could make unlimited contributions to [municipal] candidates, PACs [political action committee that basically collects campaign contributions], party committees, legislative caucus committees, and ballot measure campaigns. Super PACs [independent-expenditure only committees] could not make direct contributions to the aforementioned individuals and groups,” according to a report on Ballotopedia

What rules govern campaign finance in my hometown of Orange Beach and other municipalities throughout the state?

“Candidates for municipal office are required to file disclosure reports in the same manner as state and county candidates.  But, municipal candidates must file with the judge of probate in their county instead of filing electronically with the Secretary of State,” said Clay Helms, Director of Elections, Alabama Secretary of State’s Office in an email.

I reached out to the Judge of Probate’s Office in Baldwin County for comment, but received a reference instead.  “You should be able to go on the Probate website and…all the [municipal candidate] reports should come up,” said Violetta Smith, Election Manager for Baldwin County Probate in an email.         

To improve transparency there is more that should be considered. Take for instance, there is no law insisting candidates release their tax returns in the Alabama Fair Campaign Practices Act.  I argue tax returns help provide openness, essentially guarding against conflicts of interest in a small town like Orange Beach.

Basically, we see all the rules for campaign finance disclosure are consistent across the state, requiring all candidates for public office to explain where the funds are coming from except when dealing with out-of-state monies. These are exempt from the local rules, “The Secretary of State’s website says that federal PACs [Political Action Committees] aren’t subject to Alabama law.” according to a report on al.com.

Running for public office requires research.  Information regarding candidate filing requirements can be obtained from the Alabama Secretary of State’s office.

Fundraising is a political art form. “Create a host committee of well-connected and enthusiastic individuals who are willing to promote your events [fundraisers] in the community,” according to a report on NGPVAN.  In 2018, Orange Beach Councilman Jeff Boyd ran against Baldwin County Commissioner Chris Elliot for the same seat in the Alabama State Senate.  Elliot raised seven times more money than Boyd.  Guess who won?  In politics, money matters.

Money and politics did not always share the same bed. “The idea of candidates asking for contributions to fund their campaigns was completely foreign to George Washington.  George and friends [the founders] probably would have been averse to political ads, directly soliciting donations from constituents, or accepting large sums of money from business PACs,” according to a report on OpenSecrets.

Still this is the world we live in, especially in the mega-donor era.  Digital campaigns, data analysis and constant polling, interpreting the results and re-polling are very expensive.  The fundraising arm should be any candidate’s most important operational focus.

I encourage qualified candidates to consider running, putting their names into the hat.  In Orange Beach, the jobs of Mayor and City Councilman do not pay much, purposely set low, discouraging competition at the ballot box.  The upside is council members have immense power over local decisions like what gets built where, building codes, flood-zone regulations, developing municipal real estate, spending grant monies from the BP Oil Spill, and employee benefits. The candidate’s reasons for running are ideally the desire to make a difference. To win organizing an efficient fundraising apparatus is essential, emulating the example of Chris Elliot, winning a seat in the Alabama State Senate.

Campaign finance disclosure is important, unmasking the underlying financial machinery is critical to understanding what’s happening behind the scenes.  I argue for having each municipal candidate in Orange Beach and around the state release their tax returns as a vehicle for clarity, being as informative to voters as having them release the results of their drug tests.

Rauf Bolden is retired IT Director at the City of Orange Beach, working as an IT & Web Consultant on the Beach Road, building apps with embedded cameras, streaming live from the clients’ networks.  He can be reached b