Americans for Prosperity — a controversial group linked to the conservative Koch brother billionaires — made an impromptu political debut Wednesday during a press conference held by prominent Democrats.
It came as a long line of lawmakers and clean-election advocates at the state Capitol called for the reversal of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United decision allowing for unlimited corporate and union spending on elections.
The lawmakers and others said they have written to Congress calling for reforms to blunt the effect of the Citzens United decision.
But JR Romano, director of the Connecticut chapter of Americans for Prosperity, seized the press conference as an opportunity to offer an alternative and supportive view of the Citizens United ruling.
He was stopped before he could finish making his point, however; nor was he well received by participants afterward.
“This whole movement [opposing Citizens United] is because you’re here,” Sandra Eagle, a member of Public Citizen and Common Cause from Stamford, told him.
“Your group spends millions to mute my voice,” she said.
The AFP organization, founded by Kansas billionaires David and Charles Koch, is reportedly planning a $25 million campaign against President Barack Obama’s re-election and spends millions on a variety of conservative causes.
Connecticut is the 32nd state in which the nonprofit group has set up shop. So far, Romano is the only full-time employee, but he said an expansion is planned so the organization can become more vocal in opposing state anti-business practices.
“We are slowly building the organization here in Connecticut. People are very upset with the direction and the policy here,” Romano said.
Just how much the nonprofit plans to spend in the upcoming years, he would not say. So far during its inaugural year, the group has spent $4,410, according to state ethics filings.
“I get [robo]calls every day from them,” said State Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, the co-chairwoman of the Government Administration and Elections Committee. “They have so much money.”
Because the organization has the potential to funnel millions to influence state policy — as it already has on the national level — Slossberg and the others that stood by her side Wednesday say they hope Congress acts soon to create a constitutional amendment to rein in corporate political spending that has skyrocketed under the Citizens United decision.
“Money talks. Well guess what? Money screams in elections,” she said.
“We want to make it clear that money is not speech,” added Cheri Quickmire, the executive director of Common Cause Connecticut.
Romano’s rhetorical questions launched at the group made clear his view that not only is corporate spending necessary to create a marketplace for the competition of ideas, but that nonprofit organizations like his should not be required to disclose the sources of their funding.
For example, he said , if the NAACP were forced to disclose where its funding comes from, donors would be potential targets for racist attacks.
This is not the first time disclosure has come up in Connecticut.
During the most recent legislative session that focused on education reform, nonprofits with uncertain sources of funding launched a wave of advertisements to back the governor’s initiatives.
“We support stronger disclosure laws. That is something we need to work on,” Slossberg said. She was referring to a bill, vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Dannel Malloy, that would require more disclosure in state elections.
But she noted that the real solution is putting limits on corporate spending. A group of 110 Democratic state representatives and senators agree, and co-signed the letter to Congress. Seven other state legislatures and 300 cities and towns across the country have also sent Congress similar letters of support.