Alaska Republican donors go to court to boost campaign contribution caps

Money is the lifeblood of a political campaign, and if a legal challenge to Alaska’s campaign contribution limits succeeds, there could be more of it. APRN’s Liz Ruskin attended the first day of a trial in U.S. District Court in Anchorage today.

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TOWNSEND: Liz, who initiated this lawsuit?

RUSKIN: The lawsuit was filed by individual Republican donors, and District 18 of the state Republican Party. The three named plaintiffs were witnesses today. All of them said they wanted to give more to particular campaigns or groups but couldn’t because of the campaign finance caps

TOWNSEND: What limits are they challenging?

RUSKIN: Several, including the $500 maximum contribution a person can make to a candidate. Also the aggregate limit on out-of-state contributions a campaign can accept. One of the witnesses today was the brother-in-law of state Rep. Wes Keller, who couldn’t even give $100 to Keller’s campaign,  because Keller had reached his $3000 out of state cap, and this relative, a retired school teacher, lives in Wisconsin.

TOWNSEND: Are these the campaign limits that voters adopted in the 1990s?

Right.  Former Democratic lawmaker David Finkelstein was a champion. He’s back in Alaska today for this trial. He expects to be called later in the week, to help defend the limits. Here’s what he said about that when I called him today:

Finkelstein: “The provisions have been in place for almost 20 years and they’ve worked well. They’re based on a citizens initiative. The idea was to reduce the influence of big money in politics.”

TOWNSEND: So, do the plaintiffs want to abolish contribution limits?

RUSKIN: No. Kevin Clarkson, the plaintiffs attorney, says if the lawsuit is successful, the current limits would be struck down and the Legislature would adopt new ones. I talked to him outside the courthouse today. He thinks a cap of $1000 to $2,700 would be more reasonable. He says the lower cap hurts regular folks who want to run for office, and challengers, because incumbents never have trouble raising money.

Clarkson: “People who can give a thousand dollars are probably less than one percent that do that. And they’re people with means but here’s where the money really comes in: When you set the limit at $500, what that does is it advantages the independently wealthy candidates who can come and put $1 million into a campaign. And then you have challengers … trying to raise money within that $500  limit range. That’s a disparity.”

TOWNSEND: Who’s defending the current law?

RUSKIN: The state. Assistant attorneys general Margaret Paton-Walsh and Laura Fox. On cross-examination today, Fox had witnesses acknowledging that they have other ways of helping campaigns, like going door-to-door, consulting and waving signs.

TOWNSEND: Is it a jury trial? How long is the trial supposed to last?

RUSKIN: It’s a non-jury trial. It’ll be decided by U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess. It’s expected to go on at least a week.

 

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.