Politics

New Alaska House leaders embrace loophole to raise campaign cash from lobbyists

The Republican leaders of Alaska's incoming House majority coalition are embracing a fundraising loophole that allows them to collect cash from lobbyists, who are otherwise restricted from donating to legislators and candidates.

House Democrats, who joined with the Republicans to form the majority coalition, have been some of the most vocal supporters of legislation to limit the flow of special-interest money into the state's campaigns.

But they're now collaborating with the fundraising efforts of their new GOP colleagues, Reps. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, and Paul Seaton, R-Homer. The two Republicans held a joint, bipartisan fundraiser Thursday at a South Anchorage restaurant along with four other incoming majority members: Harriet Drummond, D-Anchorage; Jason Grenn, I-Anchorage; Dean Westlake, D-Kotzebue; and Zach Fansler, D-Bethel.

Majority members said they weren't enthusiastic about soliciting money from lobbyists or anyone else. But they characterized the new fundraising tactic as a way to give lawmakers a bigger voice in their own campaigns after the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened up unlimited elections spending by corporations and unions.

"It's a tiny attempt to level the playing field," said Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, who has sponsored campaign finance reform legislation in the past. "I totally support people trying to defend themselves when Outside corporations want an all-Republican state."

The ban on lobbyists donating directly to state legislative candidates — except to those running in their own House and Senate district — stems from 1996 campaign finance reforms. But it took two decades before lawmakers discovered a way around the law: creating their own political groups, which aren't subject to the restrictions.

LeDoux, who holds one of the new majority's top posts as House Rules Committee chair, formed the first group, "Gabby's Tuesday PAC," in July. She said in a disclosure a month later that 10 different lobbyists had each given her $500, the legal maximum.

LeDoux hasn't transferred any of the money to her own campaign, and the law blocks transfers of more than $1,000 from her PAC to other groups.

Instead LeDoux has run her group much like the fundraising committees known as "leadership PACs" that members of Congress use to share campaign money with allies — helping them cement allegiances and gain clout with other members.

Gabby's Tuesday PAC has written checks to LeDoux's allies in the majority coalition's leadership, including Seaton; Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak; and Dillingham Democratic Rep. Bryce Edgmon, the incoming House speaker — as well as to several other lawmakers in the incoming House Republican minority.

The Alaska Democratic Party challenged the legality of LeDoux's committee. But in a 4-0 vote in October, the Alaska Public Offices Commission rejected the complaint, saying it was up to the Legislature to close any legal loopholes.

Since LeDoux formed her own group, two others like it have popped up. Wasilla Republican Rep.-elect. David Eastman created his own fundraising committee, the Alaska Conservative Leadership PAC, in August.

And Seaton, the new co-chair of the House Finance Committee, formed the "Sustain Alaska Fund" earlier this month. He said he collected about $2,600 — some of it from lobbyists — at Thursday's fundraiser, which also raised money for LeDoux's committee.

Seaton faced an unsuccessful campaign by a business-backed group to defeat him in this year's Republican primary. And after joining the Democrats in the new majority coalition, he's also been attacked by the Alaska Republican Party — which, Seaton pointed out, is allowed to accept larger contributions from lobbyists than his own PAC.

In a phone interview, Seaton described the Sustain Alaska Fund as a way to fight back.

"If you're going to have Citizens United, which says people are going to spend unlimited amounts of money, you have to have better ways of responding," he said. "There's going to have to be some counterbalances."

The 1996 law clearly didn't intend to allow lawmakers to raise money from lobbyists using political groups separate from their campaigns, said David Finkelstein, one of the original proponents of the reforms — which he said were designed to reduce the amount of influence lobbyists could exercise over the legislative process.

"The Legislature owes it to the public to fix the loophole," Finkelstein said in a phone interview.

Lobbyists generally aren't clamoring to write more checks, either, said Paul Fuhs, a lobbyist with clients largely in transportation and retail.

Before the 1996 reforms, lawmakers would "really lean on you" for campaign contributions, Fuhs said.

"People would come to you and pretty much put it straight out there: 'I need a contribution if you want to talk to me,'" Fuhs said in a phone interview. Now, he added, "most of the people I talk to, they're relieved that they don't get strong-armed."

Some senators have expressed interest in drafting legislation to curtail the new fundraising committees, which Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wielechowski called "bad policy."

"There's too much money in politics to begin with," he said in a phone interview.

But such legislation would face opposition from LeDoux, the new chair of the House Rules Committee. It's a position that's traditionally come with near-unilateral power to advance bills to the floor — or hold them up.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with these kinds of PACs," LeDoux said in a phone interview. She added: "Why don't you ask the congressional delegation why they don't eliminate their PACs? They've got the same thing going for them, and nobody questions those."

Other members of the new House majority who raised money at Thursday's event with LeDoux and Seaton said they hadn't given much thought to the fundraising tactics of their colleagues, and weren't ready to endorse or disavow them.

"I think we need to kind of see how it works, and see how voters respond," said Grenn, the Anchorage independent. "I'm willing to talk about closing a loophole like this. But I'm also willing to see how it works, and see if it can be used correctly and used with good intentions."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at ADN and Alaska Public Media. He’s reported around the state and loves cross-country skiing.

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