MONTPELIER — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Matt Dunne is denouncing corporate campaign contributions and returning $16,000 in contributions to his campaign.
Dunne, in a State House news conference that also featured Peter Galbraith, a former Windham County Democratic senator who is publicly mulling his own gubernatorial bid, called on other candidates to follow his lead and on the Legislature to ban direct contributions from corporations.
Dunne said his position is based on the “longstanding belief among most Vermonters that corporations are not in fact people,” referring to the Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission Supreme Court ruling that likened corporations to individuals.
“What many Vermonters don’t know is that here in the state of Vermont, unlike federal candidates, we allow for direct corporate contributions,” Dunne said. “At the outset of this campaign, my thought was that we were going to simple abide by the rules that were in place but as we thought about it more and more, and frankly, inspired by Bernie Sanders and his ability to compete with a people-powered campaign, we made the decision as a campaign to walk the walk. That is why we are announcing today that we will not be taking any direct corporate contributions.”
Dunne’s campaign has returned about $16,000 in corporate contributions that have been given to his campaign since last summer.
Having all candidates reject direct campaign contributions would “demonstrate our commitment to opposing Citizens United and the idea that corporations are people,” Dunne said.
Molly Ritner, campaign manager for Dunne’s primary opponent, Sue Minter, said Minter’s campaign does not plan to reject all corporate donations. She said Dunne’s campaign first reached out them “about this stunt” Thursday morning, after it appeared in Seven Days on Wednesday.
“While Sue has been working in public service for the last 15 years — Matt has been working for corporate America, so we can understand why he is sensitive on this point,” Ritner said. “Sue will follow Vermont’s campaign finance laws. We will review contributions one-by-one, and will not accept any money from Wall Street corporations. But if a Vermont small business wants to support Sue’s progressive agenda for the economy, we will welcome their support.”
Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, who is running for governor in the Republican primary against former Wall Street executive Bruce Lisman, has no plans to reject contributions from businesses, spokeswoman Brittney Wilson said.
“Candidates are free to do as they see fit within campaign finance law, but we will continue to accept contributions from businesses. We’re proud to have support from both small and large businesses and individuals,” she said.
Lisman’s campaign did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.
Dunne also called on lawmakers to ban direct corporate contributions to candidates.
“There is still time in this legislative session to do so,” Dunne said. “If they decided they couldn’t quite take on banning all corporate contributions, at the very least they can address the LLC loophole to make sure that that is not a way for very wealthy individuals to give multiple times and overly influence the outcome of an election.”
The so-called loophole allows corporations to create limited liability companies and make contributions from those subsidiaries. That means companies can essentially skirt the contribution limits by donating from more than on LLC.
Galbraith, who said he plans to announce by the end of the month whether he will run for governor, has spoken of the need to ban corporate cash from Vermont campaigns. He praised Dunne Thursday for returning corporate donations.
“He talked the talk from the beginning of his campaign, now he’s walking the walk,” Galbraith said.
Galbraith said it is “much harder for Matt to do this than it would be for me.”
“I’ve never accepted corporate contributions and the reality is none were ever offered, so it was pretty easy. But, once you’ve gone through the hard work of raising money then to return it, that’s a tough thing,” he said.”
Galbraith said the Senate voted in 2010 voted to enact a ban on corporate donations before reversing course and rejecting it. The Legislature has also passed a resolution condemning the Citizen’s United ruling. But lawmakers have refused to act to ban corporate contributions at the state level. Such contributions are banned at the federal level.
“The position of this Legislature is, ‘Let’s get corporate money out of politics but don’t take away my corporate contributions.’ Well, it’s about time that that double standard was put to an end,” Galbraith said.
According to Galbraith, opponents of banning corporate contributions in Vermont often say that Vermont is not like Washington, and elected officials are not influenced by contributions. But Galbraith said that position does not stand up to scrutiny.
He mockingly said it must be “only a coincidence” that the whole-sale beverage industry and Casella Waste Management, who are both opposed to expanding the state’s bottle deposit law, are two of the biggest campaign donors in the state.
“The bottle bill, in spite of repeated efforts, has never been enlarged to cover non-carbonated beverages that are the largest part of our roadside litter,” he said.
Galbraith sounded very much like a candidate Thursday, saying if he runs, his focus will be on economic justice. He said he will call for raising the minimum wage to $12 per hour, properly funding public services and getting rid of special interest tax breaks and subsidies. Banning corporate campaign contributions is a part of seeking economic justice, he said.
“To me, the core issue in the state is economic justice and that involves a number of things,” he said.
Galbraith said he would likely be the most progressive candidate in the race. He plans to run in the Democratic primary if he launches a campaign.
“I will make an announcement if I’m going to run,” he said. “Obviously, you’ll know pretty soon.”