Staff Columnist

Public donor disclosure is essential, even in heated moments

The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, January 15, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

Political donors’ names should be made public. This really shouldn’t be up for debate but, like so many of our political norms these days, nothing is a sure thing.

Maybe you read about the controversy swirling after U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, tweeted the names of 44 donors from San Antonio who contributed the maximum allowed to President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.

“Sad to see so many San Antonians as of 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump,” wrote Castro, whose brother, Julian, is a Democratic presidential candidate. “Their contributions are fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’” He listed their names and businesses.

His tweet came after mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The El Paso shooter posted an online manifesto mimicking Trump’s frequent “invasion” language regarding a surge of immigrants and asylum-seekers at our southern border. So Castro’s tweet bomb landed in a highly charged political atmosphere. There was pushback.

Some Republicans accused the congressman of opening the door to harassment of those donors or worse, a charge that Castro denied. Trump also sharply criticized Castro in a tweet.

I don’t want anyone to be harassed or threatened. But it’s also tough to get too worked up about a U.S. representative sharing public records through his Twitter feed. If his constituents don’t like it, they can make a change. Heck, they can donate to his opponent next time around.

The troubling question is whether they’ll remain public records. Fortunately, I’ve seen no significant public push in the wake of the Castro dust-up to make them private. But legislative bodies can work in mysterious, blindsiding ways, as we’ve seen in Iowa. And it’s no secret that more than a few folks on the right are no fans of public disclosure. It doesn’t always take much to gin up the engines of big change.

It’s a long-running debate, flaring up at an overheated moment.

So it’s worth underscoring at this moment that full disclosure is essential, especially in Iowa, where campaign donations to state candidates are unlimited. Candidates for the Statehouse can receive five and six-figure donations from individuals and groups, most with a keen interest in what happens under the Golden Dome of Wisdom. Without full disclosure, we’d have no idea who is pumping in bucks, seeking influence and, in some cases, loaning out jets.

If anything, there should be more disclosure. There’s currently no reporting required of state candidates in off years, even while they ramp up campaigns, solicit contributions and engage in significant campaign activities. Iowa also fails to require disclosure of contributions and spending in the final days before Election Day, when late bucks can make a difference.

So in Iowa, we need disclosure deadlines that reflect the political realities of how campaigns operate. We need more complete and frequent information to better monitor campaigns. But don’t hold your breath waiting for legislators to shine a brighter, clearer light on their fundraising.

If campaign cash is speech, as Citizens United taught us, then that speech must be heard, not hidden. If you want to affect elections and policy in the public sphere, why should you expect anonymity? The public’s right to know far outweighs prospects for personal or professional discomfort.

And there already is too much anonymity among contributors to groups that take of advantage a section of the IRS code for “social welfare” organizations that can play heavily in electoral politics but do not disclose their donors. These so-called “dark money” groups have routinely targeted campaigns and policy issues in Iowa. Both parties have benefited from their efforts, to be sure, but Republicans seem more adept at turning the system to their advantage. No doubt we’ll see plenty of dark money flowing into Iowa’s U.S. Senate campaign.

We the people deserve more and more frequent disclosures of campaign cash, not less. These numbers tell us a story not only of who is bankrolling election campaigns but also why seemingly popular issues from medical marijuana expansion to raising the minimum wage to meaningful efforts to clean up waterways don’t seem to make much progress at the Statehouse.

To find some answers, follow the money, even if that means naming names.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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