This story has been corrected from the original version, which contained an error.
Political action committees based in Jefferson County have already raised and spent a large amount of money this year, which could have a significant impact on local and state-level elections.
A total of $87,319 was either already spent or was sitting in local PAC war chests as of last month, when the committees were required to file financial disclosures with the West Virginia secretary of state.
The sleeping giant
The largest single PAC in the area is the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund, which was established one year ago. The Freedom Fund has yet to spend a dollar of its $28,062 war chest, which accounts for 41 percent of all the money in Jefferson County-based PAC bank accounts.
The Freedom Fund is also the only currently active PAC in the state to be registered as a so-called “527 organization,” named for section 527 of the IRS Code. 527s are organized to allow them to do independent expenditures – buying TV, radio or newspaper ads, doing direct mailings, etc., to disseminate “issue ads,” which are supposed to focus on issues rather than candidates.
As long as 527 organizations do not coordinate with or explicitly endorse or oppose candidates they are not bound by Federal Elections Commission regulations. Since the Freedom Fund has registered with the Secretary of State’s office, however, it is bound to West Virginia’s campaign finance laws which ban contributions of more than $1,000 from any individual either before the primary election or between the primary and general elections. They are also forbidden from accepting corporate contributions.
Some 527s that have previously come to prominence on the national stage include Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, MoveOn.org and American Crossroads.
The majority of the Freedom Fund’s cash comes from an October 2011 fundraiser at the Bavarian Inn, where it took in $15,245. The fundraiser was attended by Republican Gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney and Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, among others. At around the same time the Freedom Fund also gathered at least $6,500 from out-of-state donors, mostly from New Jersey and the Washington D.C. area.
The Freedom Fund has strong links to current Republican candidates – especially Patrick Morrisey, who is running for attorney general, and Jim Ruland, who is running for a seat in the 16th Senate District. Morrisey filed the original papers registering the organization on July 22, 2011. Ruland was listed as the Freedom Fund’s treasurer until Jan. 21, 2012 – nine days before he filed his senatorial pre-candidacy notice with the secretary of state.
Ruland said that Morrisey and he had started the Freedom Fund long before they knew they would be candidates for office. He said they walked away from the organization before they filed for candidacy because not to do so would have been “bad form.”
After Ruland stepped down, a Shepherdstown CPA named Robert Smith took over as treasurer of the Freedom Fund. Ruland said Suzanne Morgan of Charles Town has taken over the PAC. Morgan could not be contacted by press time.
The PAC which is currently the largest spender is the Friends of the Track PAC. Friends of the Track currently has $11,132 in its war chest and has already spent $11,795 this year, mostly in contributions to individual candidates throughout the state.
Friends of the Track are likely to spend far more as the election season continues, if the pattern of past election cycles holds. In each of the last three election cycles it reported more than $35,000 in total spending.
Richard Moore, general manager of racing at the Charles Town racetrack, is listed as the treasurer of Friends of the Track. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
All of Friends of the Track’s contributions larger than $250 came from out-of-state donors, mostly in Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey, during the last period of reporting. Those contributions totaled $9,500 in the two-month reporting period.
All of Friends of the Track’s expenditures have gone to campaign donations for Democrats during this reporting cycle. The strong majority of the 28 contributions of between $250 and $500 went to incumbent state senators and delegates. Most of the supported candidates who are not incumbents are either former legislators seeking to regain their seats or individuals who had previously served in the executive branch.
Blue and red
Both the Jefferson County Democratic and Republican parties also have political action committees, with fundraising heavily favoring the Democrats. The Republicans have so far outspent the Democrats by a sizable margin, however.
Together the Democratic Executive Committee and Democratic Association have a current war chest of $14,704. They have so far kept most of their funds in reserve, however, spending only $1,332.
The Republican Executive Committee, on the other hand, has a current balance of $2,775, having already spent $3,184. A local tea party-affiliated PAC, We the People of West Virginia – Jefferson County, has a war chest of $1,522 after spending $1,784 this year.
Two issue-based committees, the Eastern Panhandle Business Association PAC and the Jefferson County Education Association PAC, have also raised significant funds this year. The Business Association has a current account balance of $5,960 and has not spent any money yet this year. The Education Association has $4,319 on hand after spending $750.
The influence of money
Joe Grey, a local citizen-activist who is critical of the campaign finance system, argues that the influence of money in elections is a major impediment to democratic, representative government.
“I think it’s the most important issue of our times because it is a centerpiece that affects all other issues,” Grey said. “The people perceive that they have lost control and influence over the electoral process, the politicians and their government because it has been bought out by big money interests – individual and corporate.”
“Until this changes and people can have a substantial impact on their government – other than through money – there are going to be a lot of people standing on the outside looking at politics as usual,” he said.
Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who has served 20 years in the state Legislature, said he supports total public financing for political campaigns but also argues that the general public overestimates the influence of money on politicians’ votes.
“A lot of people have the cart before the horse,” said Doyle. “I think a lot of people in the general public have the impression that a political action committee offers support to a candidate … in exchange for a commitment to support that group’s positions on issues of importance.”
That does happen, said Doyle, but more often “what happens is … once (a PAC) sees a pattern on the part of a given legislator, they will then decide based on that pattern whether to support that legislator or not.”
Grey said he thinks big donors are able to wield significant power because politicians know what the impact of offending them could be.
“I see it as very pervasive in our politics,” Grey said. “Politicians are afraid of offending people who would contribute or drawing out the negative guns of those who would spend money to oppose them.”
Former Delegate Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley, agreed that big campaign donors are able to wield significant influence.
“It’s unfortunate, but money does play a major role in campaigns, in politics,” Faircloth said. “I saw a number of legislators from around the state that were just locked into this political group or that political group and basically got their marching orders from them. A lot of it was because … they got vast sums of money and support for their campaigns.
Faircloth said he thought legislators from the Eastern Panhandle tended to be less influenced by PAC money.
While Doyle sees a less pervasive role played by PAC money in state politics, he nonetheless argues that they should be eliminated.
“I don’t think there ought to be any campaign contributions,” Doyle said. “The reason is that too much of the time of people running for office – particularly running for the Legislature or Congress – is spent begging for money, and not enough time is spent talking with the voters.”