BRATTLEBORO — If you want some insight into the problems that current campaign finance laws create, the Vermont Democratic primary for the U.S. House may prove instructive.
Windham County state Sen. Becca Balint and Lt. Gov. Molly Gray squared off in what proved to be a lopsided race. Balint handily defeated Gray. If Balint wins the general election, she will be the first woman and first openly gay member of Vermont's congressional delegation.
According to VTDigger, “the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which spent just shy of $1 million on Balint's behalf in the race, had recently benefited from a $1.1 million donation from Nishad Singh, a top executive at the cryptocurrency exchange FTX. The political action committee's financial disclosures make clear that the lion's share of the outside spending supporting Balint's run came from Singh's donation.”
That kind of donation is legal, but it is something that we don't usually see in Vermont politics. That is a lot of money for any Vermont race.
Media reports make it clear that Balint's campaign did nothing illegal and that it was able to benefit from current campaign finance laws. What troubles me is the way the candidate and her campaign dealt with this issue.
* * *
A story in Seven Days explains that the PAC that used the money did not coordinate with the Balint campaign, but the newspaper did note that language on Balint's website was nearly identical to language used by Chicago-area candidates who received money from the same PAC.
That PAC focuses on pandemic-related issues as well as LGBTQ issues and Balint's website listed language similar to the PAC's on pandemic issues before other health-related topics that Seven Days called “oddly specific.”
VTDigger noted that “through Silver, her campaign manager, Balint declined to be interviewed but responded to questions submitted in writing. She also criticized VTDigger's questions.
“The tone and insinuation implies that I have done something wrong, and I have not,” she said.
Balint wrote that she did not know “this person” who had donated to the Victory Fund. And she noted that federal law prohibits her from coordinating with the independent expenditure arm of the Victory Fund, and she wrote multiple times that she had “no control” over its raising and spending.
She also vigorously defended the organization. “The Victory Fund represents the broad LGBTQ community in this country, and it is giving a voice to so many, while it pushes back against a very hostile and homophobic political environment. I support their work,” she wrote.
The VTDigger piece goes on to say, “Asked what policy commitments, in light of the revelation of Singh's donation, she would like to make to assure Vermonters of her independence, Balint notably made no mention of cryptocurrency. But she did forcefully call for campaign finance reform - something she has done many times before.”
* * *
My opinion is that Balint should have immediately called out the PAC money support as soon as she became aware of it. While she could not have stopped the support, she could have made it clear that she does not want to be involved in that kind of politics.
She did not get out in front of the issue and, from what I can tell, she did not comment on it until Vermont media made it an issue.
She also used the fact that the PAC supports gay issues as a shield and said she supports its work - which also could imply that she supports its big-money tactics. She used this shield to try to paint Gray as anti-gay in her criticism of her use of the PAC money.
If Balint supports the work of this PAC, she cannot say she stands behind its support of gay issues and then criticize the use of what has come to be known as dark money. It's almost as if she is implying that the ends justify the means because it is a gay rights group.
The same VTDigger piece explained, “Molly Gray is very close to saying, you know, 'We don't want a gay agenda,'” Balint campaign manager Natalie Silver told VTDigger in a late July interview. “She's calling these 'special interests.' These aren't special interests. These are gay people. This is the LGBTQ community. This isn't beet farmers. This isn't big ag. This isn't oil. These are people who are afraid for their lives right now.”
* * *
If not for Seven Days and VTDigger, Balint's campaign may have simply let things go. It is extremely troubling that Balint refused to be interviewed by VTDigger. If she makes it to Washington, is that the way she will behave when she wants to control an issue?
Written comments are not enough when it comes to accountability to voters. We need to move beyond adversarial relationships with the media.
Balint is not the kind of politician whom Vermonters have relied on for transparency and for supporting issues most important to voters. It is clear to me that she will do whatever it takes to get elected, and that is not a candidate I can support.