House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Matt Ritter. mark pazniokas /
Reps. Joe Aresimowicz and Matt Ritter, the incoming House Democratic leaders.
Reps. Joe Aresimowicz and Matt Ritter, the incoming House Democratic leaders. mark pazniokas /

With a new ad and press conference, Democrats made the corporate and billionaire backers of a Republican effort to gain seats in the Connecticut House an issue Thursday. The GOP called the effort a disingenuous gambit to distract voters from the state’s economic failings under a Democratic governor and legislature.

House Democratic leaders said they would propose campaign finance reforms next year to improve the disclosure of donors behind independent expenditures, a reaction to attacks on Democrats by Grow Connecticut, a Super PAC indirectly funded by Walmart, Koch Industries and the billionaire, Sheldon G. Adelson.

“We really feel strongly about that, because if you are going to go out there and say things in an election cycle, you should have your name on it and you should stand up and be accountable for it,” said House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. mark pazniokas /

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who complained last week about union-funded digital ads tying 13 Republican candidates to Donald J. Trump’s “attacks on women and families,” challenged Aresimowicz to subject labor PACs to the same scrutiny he wants applied to business groups.

“To talk about Super PACs that are on our side versus Super PACs that are on their side, if they want more transparency on our side, they better darn well have the same transparency on their side,” Klarides said.

Labor United for Connecticut, the PAC that placed the Trump-related digital ads, is funded by affiliates of the Service Employees International Union, using contributions from its 55,000 members. The small contributions of individual union members are not disclosable, only totals from each affiliate.

Labor United had spent $126,000, but it canceled $37,500 in digital ads after a piece linking Republicans to  Trump’s “attacks on women and families” backfired. One of the targets was Dr. William A. Petit, a House challenger whose wife and daughters were murdered in a home-invasion.

Grow Connecticut is funded by a $350,000 contribution from the Republican State Leadership Committee, a Washington D.C. group that spent nearly $6.8 million in the third quarter of 2016 to influence races for state offices across the U.S. As a “527,” a tax-exempt group organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code, it can accept unlimited funds from individuals or corporations.

Adelson, the owner of a Las Vegas casino, contributed $500,000. Walmart and Koch Industries each gave slightly more than $200,000.

“To stand up here and say, ‘There is a problem. It’s not right.’ Why? Because you are scared? Because you are desperate? Is that the problem six days before the election?” Klarides said.

A recent analysis by CT Mirror found that business, labor and other interests had spent $1.4 million in independent expenditures on General Assembly races.

With an expenditure of $150,000, Grow Connecticut is running a video ad calling the Democrats a “rubber stamp” for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, an unpopular Democrat who is not on the ballot but figures prominently in many ads and mailers. It is spending a similar amount on digital ads promoting specific Republicans and attacking their Democratic opponents.

The Democrats responded with their own ad, responding to Grow Connecticut’s and what they called the GOP agenda for the General Assembly.

Aresimowicz, the choice of his caucus to succeed House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, as the top House leader in January, also said Democrats also would try to protect publicly financed candidates against independent expenditures, something not possible without a reversal by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Democrats would seek to reinstate a “trigger” provision in the state’s voluntary Citizens’ Election Program, which would provide supplemental grants to participating candidates who come under attack by independent expenditure groups.

Participants in the program agree to strict spending and contribution limits in return for public grants of $28,150 in House races and $95,710 for Senate campaigns.

In a case involving public financing in Arizona, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that supplemental grants to offset private spending, either by an opposing candidate or an independent group, abridged the First Amendment rights of those who can afford to spend on campaigns.

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the majority said the trigger “plainly forces the privately financed candidate to ‘shoulder a special and potentially significant burden’ when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in a dissent, “Except in a world gone topsy-turvy, additional campaign speech and electoral competition is not a First Amendment injury.”

Aresimowicz and Rep. Matthew Ritter, D-Hartford, the Democrats’ choice to succeed Aresimowicz as majority leader,  said they were willing to pass legislation likely to be challenged in court, hoping that the Supreme Court would revisit the issue next year after a new justice is appointed to succeed the late Antonin Scalia. He was one of justices supporting narrow 5-4 majorities in the Arizona case and in Citizens United, which gave corporations and individuals the right to make unlimited independent expenditures in campaigns.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, suggested the Democrats’ interest in reform was disingenuous, noting that Democrats have acted to increase the flow of money into campaigns, not restrict it. One change was to repeal a $10,000 cap on money the state parties could spend on individual legislative races. Democrats say lifting the cap in 2013 was a defense against independent expenditures.

When the public financing system was created in 2005, the Democrats insisted on allowing each caucus to maintain three leadership PACs, which raise money from lobbyists and others with interests at the Capitol. The ad unveiled Thursday was paid for by those PACs.

As of early this week, the PACs controlled by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate had spent $684,000 and were poised to drop another $900,000 in the campaign’s final week.  House Democrats had about $370,000.

“If Rep. Aresimowicz were serious about keeping elections clean, why are we all of sudden hearing these concerns now just days before an election? The Democratic Party has had unfettered control of the state for the past six years,” Fasano said. “Yet in that time they have only weakened the state’s clean election system, and rejected Republicans’ attempts to implement realistic changes to keep elections clean. He had a chance to reform our system, and he refused to do anything about it.”

Independent Expenditures in General Assembly Races
The figures reflect spending as of Tuesday night.
PACs and other Independent expenditure groups Total expenditures as of Nov. 1. Senate Candidates Supported Senate Candidates Opposed House Candidates Supported House Candidates Opposed Main Funders
Connecticut Business and Industry Association $481,388.00 Republicans Len Suzio, George Logan, Heather Somers, John French Democrats Dante Bartolomeo, Joe Crisco, Tim Bowles, Mae Flexer Republicans Kathleen McCarty, Aundre Bumgardner, Kevin Skulczyck, Scott Storms, Brian Ohler, Nicole Klarides-Ditria, Charles Ferraro, Democrats John K. Hampton, Jonathan Steinberg Democrats Sharon Palmer, Joe de la Cruz, Tim Curtis, Theresa Conroy Business Members
Grow Connecticut $328,946.00 Republicans Lorraine Marchetti, George Logan, Heather Somers Democrats Steve Cassano, Joe Crisco, Tim Bowles Republicans William Petit, Holly H. Cheeseman, Aundre Bumgardner, Kevin Skulczyck, Scott Storms, Brian Ohler, Todd Schaller, Steven R. Giacomi, Craig Fishbein, Nicole Klarides-Ditria. Democrats Betty Boukus, Beth Hogan, Joe de la Cruz, Tracey Hanson, Tim Curtis, William Riiska, Michelle Cook, Jeff Berger, Patrick Reynolds, Theresa Conroy Republican State Leadership Committee (a Washington DC Super PAC)
Action for Working Families $138,174.00 Democrats Tim Bowles, Ryan Henowitz, Ed Gomes, Marilyn Moore Democrats Betty Boukus, Christine Conley, Joe de la Cruz, Mary Jane Lundgren, Laura Bartok, Josh Elliott Unions
Common Sense Leadership $97,754.00 Democrats Steve Cassano, Dante Bartolomeo, Mae Flexer ($42,500) Democrats Joe Aresimowicz, Derek Slap, Christine Randall, Caroline Simmons, ($38,000) Unions, plus law firm of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder
Labor United for Connecticut —Originally reported $126,692 in expenditures, then canceled digital ad buys after criticism. Actual spending for and against listed candidates unclear. $88,635.00 Democrat Tim Bowles, Mae Flexer Republican Heather Somers Democrats Saud Anwar, Betty Boukus, Joshua Schulman, Sharon Palmer, Christine Conley, Joe de la Cruz, Susan Eastwood, Tim Curtis, Laura Bartok, Liz Linehan, Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, Sean P. Ronan, Russell Morin. Republicans Tom Delnicki, Kathleen McCarty, John F. Scott, Aundre Bumgardner, Sam Belsito, Scott Storms, Cara Pavalock, Andrew Falvey, Mitch Bolinsky, Charles Ferraro, Mike J. Hurley.(Digital ads placed, then canceled.) Unions, primarily affiliates of Service Employees International Union
Realtors PAC $78,364.00 Republicans Art Linares, Tony Hwang ($43,000 spent on them) Realtors
Campaign for Connecticut’s Future $54,665.00 Republicans Art Linares, Heather Somers, Democrats Bob Duff, Steve Cassano Democrats Caroline Simmons, Steve Stafstrom, Chris Rosario Real Reform Now Network (promotes charter schools)
Charters Care $39,115.00 Democrat Steve Cassano Democratic Charlie L. Stallworth, Terry Adams, Republican Aundre Bumgardner Real Reform Now Network (promotes charter schools)
Change Course CT $36,505.00 Democrat Steve Cassano Democrats Charlie L. Stallworth, Chris Soto. Education Reform Now Advocacy (promotes charter schools.)
Planned Parenthood Votes! $18,528.00 Democrats Terry Gerratana, Marilyn Moore, Dante Bartolomeo Democrat Liz Linehan National Planned Parenthood
NRA $12,873.00 Republicans Len Suzio, John French, Craig Miner, Art Linares NRA members
Connecticut League of Conservation Voters $11,161.00 Democrats Tim Bowles, Dante Bartolomeo, David Lawson. Republican Craig Miner
Campaign finance reports, State Elections Enforcement Commission

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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