Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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New York's Gov. Cuomo Unveils His Own Bill to Battle Big-Money Politics—But Does It Matter?

| Wed Jun. 12, 2013 12:23 PM EDT
Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

With less than a week before New York State lawmakers go home for the summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) unveiled his own bill on Tuesday to curb Albany's streak of political corruption scandals and battle the state's big-money politics. Cuomo's bill would make it easier to convict someone for bribing public officials and ban anyone convicted of public corruption from ever again working in government. It would expand the state's voter registration period, beef up the enforcement of election laws, and let 16- and 17-year-olds pre-register to vote.

But it is the third piece of Cuomo's bill that campaign reformer types care about most. That piece calls for a public financing system for all New York State elections in which small donations up to $175 would be matched $6 to $1 with public money. The intent here is clear: Nudge candidates running for state Assembly and Senate to collect more two- and three-figure donations as opposed to courting wealthy donors who can legally give five- and six-figure donations under New York's lax election laws. "Governor Cuomo's proposal builds upon a small-donor matching fund system that has proven effective in New York City," says Michael Malbin, the director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. "CFI's research shows the incentives work to get candidates to make low-dollar donors the financial backbones of their campaigns."

Foes of super-PACs and big-money politics see public financing as the best fix to today's money-soaked political system. And since a divided Congress won't take up public financing, public financing supporters believe the states give them the best shot at new reforms. Fair Elections for New York, a coalition of unions, good-government groups, and more, have invested heavily in passing a statewide public financing bill in New York, which they see as the marquee fight in the today's political money wars. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere," was how Nick Nyhart, president of the reform group Public Campaign, put it last year.

By introducing his own bill, Cuomo is signaling to resistant Republican lawmakers that he wants public financing before the current session ends. The governor is also showing his liberal allies that he's still entrenched in this fight, at least publicly.

Yet the prospects for reform in New York are not good. The Democratic-controlled state Assembly has already passed a public financing bill like Cuomo's, but the state Senate is run by a motley coalition of Republicans and so-called independent Democrats, and Senate Republicans have no interest in public financing. Despite several analyses showing a modest price tag for public financing of statewide elections, state Sen. Dean Skelos, the Senate GOP's leader, said he'd rather invest the money in "education, infrastructure, job creation, child care—there are a lot of areas that we can use that money for."

Even Cuomo questioned whether major corruption or campaign reforms could pass before the legislature adjourns next week. Calling his bill "needed" and "overdue," he added: "I would not say that I see an especially easy glide path to passage for this bill."

The action around public financing isn't just in New York. On Wednesday morning, 10 leaders of liberal groups pressed top Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to unite behind a national public financing bill for Congressional elections. Read their full letter here.

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Community College Says NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden Took No "Cyber-Related Classes"

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 5:29 PM EDT

Edward Snowden

In its story unveiling National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, the Guardian reported that the 29-year-old attended "a community college in Maryland, studying computing, but never completed the coursework." The Guardian did not name the community college. But a spokesman for Anne Arundel Community College (AACC), located in southeastern Maryland, tells Mother Jones a student with Snowden's name and birthdate attended the college from 1999 to 2001 and then again from 2004 to 2005. He did not receive a certificate or degree, the spokesman, Daniel Baum, says.

But here's an interesting wrinkle: Baum says Snowden took no "cyber-related courses" at this college. Nor did he take any classes in the college's NSA-certified "Information Systems Security" program, which focuses on safeguarding computer data and networks, though he went on to work in a related field for the government and in the private sector. It's unclear whether Snowden studied computing elsewhere.

Ken Cuccinelli's Running Mate Is More Moderate Than Him on At Least One Thing: Banning Gay Sex

| Mon Jun. 10, 2013 10:24 AM EDT
E.W. Jackson, the Virginia GOP's pick for lieutentant governor.

E.W. Jackson, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in Virginia, holds awfully extreme views on gay rights and has no qualms about venting them. On his now-dormant personal Twitter feed, as my colleague Tim Murphy pointed out, Jackson frequently aired his hatred toward gays: When President Obama declared June "LGBT Pride Month," Jackson tweeted, "Well that just makes me feel ikky all over." In October 2009, he tweeted, "The 'homosexual religion' is the most virulent anti-Christian bigotry & hatred I've ever seen." Those kinds of comments put Jackson in step with his running mate, Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, a conservative who is as hard-line as they come on social issues.

Yet there is one crusade on which Jackson says he doesn't intend to join Cuccinelli: banning gay sex.

Buried in a recent National Review profile of Jackson, who is conservative minister, is this paragraph:

After chatting with attendees, Jackson sat down with me for an interview. While his sermon ended with flair and bombast, he was soft-spoken and earnest as I questioned him about how his religious beliefs interact with his political views. Christian values make us free, Jackson told me, and people should live as they see fit as long as they don’t hurt others. While he opposes same-sex marriage, he said he wouldn’t support any sort of ban on gay sex. He also said there shouldn't be any legal sanction of a religion, and that he would oppose a constitutional amendment naming Christianity as America’s official religion. But that doesn't mean that our culture isn’t historically Judeo-Christian, he added, and influenced by the Bible. Acknowledging that isn’t an imposition of religion.

The emphasis above is mine. Jackson saying he doesn't support banning gay sex is a significant break from Cuccinelli. Remember, in 2003 the Supreme Court's ruling in the Lawrence v. Texas case struck down anti-sodomy laws at the state level. But Virginia kept its gay-sex ban on the books after Lawrence. Then, in March, the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit deemed that Virginia's anti-sodomy law was unconstitutional. A month later, Cuccinelli, who is Virginia's attorney general, raised eyebrows when he asked the 4th Circuit to rethink its decision. (Cuccinelli's office said it was defending the state's anti-sodomy law to more harshly punish a 47-year-old man who solicited oral sex from teenagers. Here's why that is a problematic response.)

Cuccinelli explained his opposition to gay sex in 2009: "My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They're intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law-based country it's appropriate to have policies that reflect that...They don't comport with natural law." This is a long-running fight for Cuccinelli. As far back as 2004, when he was a Virginia state senator, he warned of a plot by the LGBT community to "dismantle sodomy laws" and "get education about homosexuals and AIDS in public schools."

On this issue, though, Cuccinelli and his running mate appear to see things differently. Ken, you might want to call your office.

Silicon Valley's Awful Race and Gender Problem in 3 Mind-Blowing Charts

| Thu Jun. 6, 2013 2:11 PM EDT

Catherine Bracy moved to San Francisco from Chicago during the 2012 campaign to run Team Obama's technology field office, a first-of-its-kind project that enlisted Silicon Valley's whiz-kid engineers to build software for the campaign. (That tech savvy, of course, played a pivotal role in Obama's victory.) What struck Bracy about the tech-crazed Bay Area, she recounted Thursday in a talk at the Personal Democracy Forum tech conference, was the jarring inequality visible everywhere in Silicon Valley—between rich and poor, between men and women, between white people and, well, everyone else.

Bracy's talk featured some eye-popping charts on Silicon Valley's race and gender divide. Here are three of them.

In 2010, the latest year for which Bracy could find data, 89 percent of California companies that got crucial seed funding were founded by men. What percentage were all-female founding teams? Just three percent.

CB Insights, Venture Capital Human Capital Report, January-June 2010

Bracy looked at that funding breakdown by race—and there's even less diversity. In 2010, less than 1 percent of the founders of Silicon Valley companies were black, a figure so small Bracy didn't put it on her white-guy-dominated pie chart.

CB Insights, Venture Capital Human Capital Report, January-June 2010

And when looking at the economic winners and losers in Silicon Valley, that racial disparity really pops out. From 2009 to 2011, income for blacks living in Silicon Valley dropped by 18 percent, compared to a decrease of 4 percent nationally. Hispanics fared badly, too. The big winners were whites and Asian Americans.

Silicon Valley Foundation/Joint Venture Silicon Valley, 2013 Silicon Valley Index

Oh, one more thing: According to Bracy, women make 49 cents for every dollar men make in Silicon Valley. You don't need a chart to feel the force of that statistic.

Montana Republicans Launch Campaign to Ban Dark Money

| Wed Jun. 5, 2013 11:07 AM EDT
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), right, was helped in his 2012 reelection bid by dark money spending.

Unlike their counterparts in Congress, state lawmakers around the country are speeding ahead with efforts to reform how campaigns are funded and to address the flow of dark money into elections. Democrats in New York's legislature want new legislation creating a public financing system for statewide elections. In California, the Democratic-controlled Senate recently passed its own DISCLOSE Act, which would force groups running political ads to name the top three funders of those ads and compel full disclosure of donations masked by pass-throughs or shell companies.

Now comes Montana. On Tuesday, a group of state Republican lawmakers unveiled a new initiative to ban dark money in state political campaigns. The lawmakers and their allies hope to put a dark-money ban initiative on the ballot for the November 2014 elections. A similar piece of legislation, Senate Bill 375, won the backing of Democrats and Republicans in Montana's Senate last legislative session but later died in the state House.

The Republican backers of the ballot measure effort say they expect plenty of Democratic support. "It may be a Republican group that's kicking it off, but it is a joint initiative and it will be a bipartisan cause," state Rep. Roger Hagan (R) told the Great Falls Tribune.

Here's more from the Tribune:

Buffalo Republican Sen. Jim Peterson, SB 375's sponsor, said the initiative would require "full transparency" in Montana state elections.

Peterson said anonymous spending by third-party 501(c)(4) nonprofit political groups has corrupted the political process by allowing undisclosed, outside spending in local races.

"Dark money has brought great divisiveness to the election process," Peterson said. "Locals have no idea who is influencing their politicians and their government officials, so today we're going to put the power back into the democratic process and let the people answer this question for us."

The measure is still in the works, and draft ballot language of the proposed measure should be available within 30 days, Peterson said.

For a proposed initiative to qualify for the ballot, it needs to be submitted to the Legislative Services Division. Then, it must pass a legal review by the Montana Attorney General’s Office. If the ballot language is approved, the sponsor must collect signatures from 5 percent of the total number of qualified voters in Montana, including 5 percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative House districts.

Montanans saw a flood of anonymous political spending in 2012, due to the combination of cheap ad rates and a fiercely fought US Senate race pitting incumbent Jon Tester against Republican Denny Rehberg. As ProPublica reported, total spending in the Tester-Rehberg race reached $51 million, twice as much as was spent in Tester's 2006 race. Of that, roughly $12 million was dark money.

Money from undisclosed sources played an pivotal role in Tester's victory. It helped libertarian candidate Dan Cox grab more votes than any libertarian candidate statewide in a competitive race—votes Rehberg needed to unseat Tester. In the end, Tester won by nearly 4 percentage points.

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