Texas Sen. Leticia Van Putte, who is running for lieutenant governor.
Minutes before midnight last June 25, after state Sen. Wendy Davis concluded her 12-and-a-half-hour filibuster of a bill to severely limit abortion access in Texas, a colleague of Davis' took the mike. Angered that the Republican leadership seemed to be ignoring female senators like herself, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte asked, "At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?" The Davis supporters who'd filled the gallery suddenly erupted in applause, a roar that only got louder as order turned to chaos, midnight came and went, and the infamous SB 5 legislation was, for the time being, defeated.
Today, 59-year-old Van de Putte once again finds herself alongside Davis, who's running for governor. She is the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Texas and will face either incumbent David Dewhurst or hard-right conservative state Sen. Dan Patrick in November. (Dewhurst and Patrick will compete in a May 27 runoff to pick the GOP nominee.) Right now, Davis is the talk of Texas politics, grabbing all the headlines and raising eye-popping sums of money. But Van de Putte may figure larger in the future of her state. Latina, progressive, and a sixth-generation Texan, she has a serious chance of winning, especially if a fire-breather like Patrick wins the runoff, and she is the type of candidate Democrats need as they try to capitalize on the state's growing Latino population and turn Texas blue.
Every schoolchild, the saying goes, learns that the most powerful politician in Texas is the lieutenant governor. If the governor of Texas dies, the lieutenant governor assumes the top spot. If the governor leaves the state even for a few days, the lieutenant governor becomes sitting governor. The lieutenant governor appoints the powerful committee chairmanships in the state Senate, picks which committee bills are sent to, and decides when a bill comes up for a vote and when someone is recognized on the floor of the state Senate.
In other words, if Van de Putte wins, instead of asking for permission to speak, as she did last June, she'd be giving it. While she may be an underdog—any Texas Democrat running for statewide office is—she's no long shot. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll showed her trailing Patrick by 9 percentage points—2 less than Davis' deficit against her Republican rival, Attorney General Greg Abbott—and Dewhurst by 12. If Van de Putte did pull off an upset—and Davis fell short—it would still be the biggest win for state Democrats since Ann Richards won the governorship in 1990.
Davis and Van de Putte share the top of the ballot, but in many ways they couldn't be more different. Davis is composed, lawyerly, and on-message; Van de Putte (whose maiden name is San Miguel) practically preaches from the dais, her speeches peppered with one-liners and zingers and folksy wisdom. At one event last year, a copy of her prepared remarks given to reporters included the disclaimer: "**Please note that the Senator frequently diverges from her prepared remarks**"
On a recent Sunday morning, Van de Putte didn't appear to have any prepared remarks as she addressed a Texas AFL-CIO convention at a downtown Austin hotel. "My journey here was not an easy one," she said. In the past year, her six-month-old grandson, 82-year-old father, a beloved employee of her husband's company, and her husband's mother had all died. Grief stricken, Van de Putte said she wouldn't have thought about running for lieutenant governor but for her friend Becky Moeller, the president of the Texas AFL-CIO. Moeller gently nagged her about running, and gave her polling data showing a narrow path to victory. Van de Putte and her family prayed on the decision. Ultimately, seeing the direction her state was headed, she couldn't say no. She told the convention attendees, "You know, Mama ain't happy. And if your family's like my family, Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.'" Pause. "And if Grandma's not happy, run! And so I am."
Van de Putte's 20-minute speech veered from the tragic (her family's recent losses) to the euphoric to the hard-hitting. She singled out Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) for "throwing a temper tantrum" that shut down the federal government. Yet as any politician worth her salt knows, Texans don't take kindly to criticism of their beloved state, and Van de Putte's speech deftly walked the line between touting the so-called Texas miracle ("It's because of Texas families that we're succeeding") and slamming her Republican counterparts for not investing in public schools and infrastructure.
Throughout her speech, Van de Putte hit on a populist theme: "I know who you are. I know where you've been. I know where you're going." She used that line to appeal to the teachers, tradesmen, communication workers, and others gathered in the ballroom, and she urged them to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?" That populist message could play well should the GOP nominee be Dewhurst, a wealthy businessman who spent about $25 million of his own money on a losing US Senate bid in 2012 and other campaigns. Dewhurst has said this will be his last run for office; Dewhurst, who was worth at least $200 million heading into his Senate run, recently told the Associated Press he needs to "go back [to the private sector] and earn some money." Patrick, the other GOP hopeful, has come under fire for his overheated rhetoric, such as describing the flow of immigrants from Mexico to Texas as an "illegal invasion."
Of course, Van de Putte will need a lot more than her friends in the labor movement to win in November. But as local and national Democrats pour money, manpower, and technology into their quest of turning Texas blue, Leticia Van de Putte is a name you can expect to hear a lot more often.
On Friday, Bill Clinton's presidential library released 4,000 previously secret documents from his time as president. An August 31, 1995, memo titled "HRC Media Possibilities" written by Lisa Caputo, an aide to Hillary Clinton, discusses the various venues through which to promote the First Lady. They include meeting with the editors of women's and liberal magazines, sitting for interviews pegged to the Clintons' 20th anniversary and the birthday of Eleanor Roosevelt, and even making an appearance on the popular ABC sitcom Home Improvement. ("I know this may sound like a wild idea, but I think it is an interesting one to discuss.")
The otherwise sober memo takes an unexpectedly funny turn, however, when the Internet comes up. Or, as Caputo refers to it, "Internet." As in: "As Karen has said, Internet has become a very popular mode of communication. Hillary could speak to young women through Internet."
A leading group in the fight against today's big-money politics plans to spend $1 million during the next four weeks on a TV, online, and mobile advertising blitz pressuring New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and state legislators to pass a bill aimed at amplifying the voices of small-dollar donors in statewide elections.
Public Campaign Action Fund, the group behind the new push, has released its first ad, "Liberty," seen above, that compares New York State politics to the rusting, dilapidated Statue of Liberty circa the 1980s. "Broken. Corroded. Polluted," the ad says. "New York state elections are in the same condition the Statue of Liberty once was, because big money interests are drowning out the voices of ordinary voters." The ad goes on to ask, "It took four years to restore Lady Liberty, so how long will it take to clean up our state elections?" Public Campaign Action Fund, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit funded by a mix of foundations, unions, and individual donors, has also launched a website, CleanUpAlbany.com, that promotes so-called fair elections, which would match small-dollar donations raised by candidates six times over with public money. The goal is to encourage lawmakers to engage with more people of modest means and not just wealthy campaign donors who can easily write five- and six-figure checks.
Progressives and other campaign reform types have for several years made New York State their top target for passing a fair elections bill. A reform proposal died in the state Senate last year. But in 2014, there is widespread support for campaign finance reform. The bipartisan Moreland Commission, convened by Cuomo in 2013 to investigate corruption in New York politics, recommended fair elections as a way to combat the "culture of corruption in Albany," the capital of New York State. Gov. Cuomo, a potential 2016 presidential contender, included a statewide public financing bill in his most recent budget proposal. (Should Cuomo run, he could feel pressure from the left on the issue of campaign finance reform: Another 2016 hopeful, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, recently stumped for a national public financing bill.)
Public Campaign's proposal for a statewide fair elections program is modeled after New York City's system, which matches small donations with public grant money. That system helped Bill de Blasio win the city's 2013 mayoral Democratic primary and eventually become mayor. This type of matching system is popular among reformers right now because it doesn't seek to limit contributions to candidates or outside groups, restrictions that are likely to be struck down at a time when the Supreme Court is likely to overturn such limits. Instead, as Public Campaign Action Fund Executive Director David Donnelly put it, a fair elections bill aims to "raise up the voices of everyday people in our political process."
This week, the media got the chance to pore over more than 27,000 pages of previously unreleased emails and other documents gathered during a three-year secret investigation of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's staff when he was executive of Milwaukee County. That secret probe—what Wisconsin law enforcement calls a "John Doe" investigation—resulted in charges against three former aides to Walker, a major campaign donor, and a Walker appointee. The John Doe probe figured prominently in Democrats' attacks on Walker during his June 2012 recall election that the governor handily won. Walker himself never faced any charges.
The recently released emails shed new light on the activities of Walker and his aides. Walker had insisted that staffers in his county executive office had been prohibited from doing political work on county time, yet these records show the opposite was true. The future governor and his underlings set up a private WiFi network to communicate with staff on his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and county staffers used private laptops so that their campaign-related work wouldn't appear on their county computers. The emails also show the degree to which Walker's staff (whose salaries were funded by taxpayers) worked to get him elected governor while on the county clock. As Mary Bottari of PRWatch notes, Kelly Rindfleisch, a former Walker aide who was convicted of campaigning on county time, sent and received a whopping 3,486 emails from representatives of Friends of Scott Walker, most during normal work hours. (Walker, through his spokesman, declined to comment about the emails.)
But there is an investigation that should keep Walker up at night: a second John Doe investigation reportedly focused on his 2012 recall campaign. (After Walker targeted public-sector unions following his 2010 election as governor, labor and its allies launched a petition drive to throw Walker out of office via recall election.) John Doe probes are conducted in secret so the public can't know all the details, but leaked documents suggest investigators are looking at possible illegal coordination between Walker's recall campaign and independent groups that spent millions of dollars to keep him in office. Here's how the progressive Center for Media and Democracy wrote about the investigation recently:
The John Doe probe began in August of 2012 and is examining possible "illegal campaign coordination between (name redacted), a campaign committee, and certain special interest groups," according to an unsealed filing in the case. Sources told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the redacted committee is the Walker campaign, Friends of Scott Walker. Campaign filings show that Walker spent $86,000 on legal fees in the second half of 2013.
A John Doe is similar to a grand jury investigation, but in front of a judge rather than a jury, and is conducted under strict secrecy orders. Wisconsin's 4th Circuit Court of Appeals unsealed some documents last week as it rejected a challenge to the probe filed by three of the unnamed "special interest groups" that had received subpoenas in the investigation and issued a ruling allowing the investigation to move forward.
The special interest groups under investigation include Wisconsin Club for Growth, which is led by a top Walker advisor and friend, R.J. Johnson, and which spent at least $9.1 million on "issue ads" supporting Walker and legislative Republicans during the 2011 and 2012 recall elections. Another group is Citizens for a Strong America, which was entirely funded by Wisconsin Club for Growth in 2011 and 2012 and acted as a conduit for funding other groups that spent on election issue ads; CSA's president is John Connors, who previously worked for David Koch's Americans for Prosperity and is part of the leadership at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity (publishers of Watchdog.org and Wisconsin Reporter). Other groups reportedly receiving subpoenas include AFP, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Republican Governors Association.
Unlike the first John Doe probe, this newer one seems to have Walker's political operation in its sights. This ought to have Walker and his aides far more concerned than some old emails from his Milwaukee County days.
O'Malley, who would likely run to the left of Clinton in 2016, says he supports the Government By The People Act, a new bill recently introduced by Maryland Congressman John Sarbanes intended to increase the number of small-dollar donors in congressional elections and nudge federal candidates to court those $50 and $100 givers instead of wealthier people who can easily cut $2,500 checks. The nuts and bolts of the Government By The People Act are nothing new: To encourage political giving, Americans get a $25 tax credit for the primary season and another $25 credit for the general election. And on the candidate side, every dollar of donations up to $150 will be matched with six dollars of public money, in effect "supersizing" small donations. (Participating candidates must agree to a $1,000 cap on all contributions to get that 6-to-1 match.) In other words, the Sarbanes bill wants federal campaigns funded by more people giving smaller amounts instead of fewer people maxing out.
What makes the Sarbanes bill stand out is breadth of support it enjoys. The bill has 130 cosponsors—all Democrats with the exception of Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.)—including Sarbanes and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) And practically every progressive group under the sun has stumped for the Government By The People Act, including the Communication Workers of America, the Teamsters, Sierra Club, NAACP, Working Families, Friends of Democracy super-PAC, and more. Through efforts like the Democracy Initiative and the Fund for the Republic, progressives are mobilizing around the issue of money in politics, and their championing of Sarbanes' bill is a case in point.
But O'Malley is the first 2016 hopeful to stump for the reforms outlined in the Government By The People Act. "We need more action and smarter solutions to improve our nation's campaign finance system, and I commend Congressmen John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen for their leadership on this important issue," O'Malley said in a statement. "Elections are the foundation of a successful democracy and these ideas will put us one step closer toward a better, more representative system that reflects the American values we share."
No other Democratic headliners, including Clinton, have taken a position on the Sarbanes bill. (New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did include a statewide public financing program in his latest budget proposal. And Clinton, as a senator, cosponsored the Kerry-Wellstone Clean Elections Act.) Yet with nearly every major liberal group rallying around the money-in-politics issue, any Democrat angling for the White House in 2016 will need to speak up on how he or she will reform today's big-money political system.