PORTLAND – Greg Kesich is right in saying that outside money is pouring into our legislative races, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, is toxic to our system (“The cost of legislative races is poisoning the system,” Nov. 7).

It erodes the democratic process and drowns out the voices of individual voters like the readers of and writers for this newspaper. One deep pocket stood out in particular, before it pulled out of Maine at the end of October: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The U.S. Chamber said it planned to spend $100 million on the elections. The latest numbers show that it spent more than $1 million on partisan political ads in Maine alone! Even though that number is lower than it is in other states and Maine is considered a “cheap date” in the world of political ads, that is a large and noteworthy amount.

According to www.Open Secrets.org, the nonpartisan guide, outside spending in this year’s Maine U.S. Senate race saw an increase of 465 percent over spending in 2010′s midterms and 175 percent over the amount spent in 2008.

Because of Citizens United, the public witnessed record spending by independent campaign committees in the 2010 midterm elections. The 2012 races promise to be the most expensive in history — most are predicting at least four times the levels of spending in the record-breaking 2008 race.

When corporations give money to one of the new super PACs, the funding is subject to Federal Election Commission reporting requirements and, therefore, is mostly disclosed.

But there is another way for corporations to spend money on elections without the sources and the amounts becoming public knowledge: by making undisclosed disbursements from the treasury to a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation, just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The U.S. Chamber claims to be a representative of small businesses, alleging to speak on behalf of small-business owners around the country. Instead, it gets its money from a handful of corporations hiding behind nondisclosure.

Even though the U.S. Chamber withdrew its Maine political ads a couple of weekends before Election Day, we should still be concerned because it was a preview of what could happen in future election years if the Citizens United decision is not overturned.

In an effort to put pressure on the U.S. Chamber to disclose the sources of money it has spent on ads this campaign season, national groups and small-business representatives held a rally on the steps of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 19, the U.S. Chamber’s 100th anniversary.

Attendees and speakers included the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Public Citizen, the Main Street Alliance, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the Business Ethics Network and a local Falmouth business owner and member of the Maine Small Business Coalition, Melanie Collins, owner of Melanie’s Home Childcare.

Another Maine business owner and member of the local Portland Regional Chamber perceives the same misrepresentation caused by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s spending of secret money in Maine’s election.

Mike Fink, owner of Guitar Grave and Mike’s Rock Deli (both on Congress Street in Portland), feels good knowing that the local chamber of commerce has tried to distance itself from the national U.S. Chamber, and he even credits the national group’s negative ads with having swayed his vote against the candidate endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

When we can’t follow the money to the muscle behind a political ad, we are unable to make an informed decision; it erodes the democratic process and tarnishes the reputations of local chambers of commerce that actually represent small businesses.

Local business owners here in Maine want to lead the way toward more transparency in our elections by saying that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t speak for them. Already, 53 small-business owners throughout the state, including Mike Fink, have signed on to U.S. PIRG’s letter saying just that.

 

Mike Fink is owner of Guitar Grave and Mike’s Rock Deli in Portland, and Nicole Karatzas is an associate with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a federation of state nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest advocacy groups.