By Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, State Chair, Vermont Progressive Party
Media sources missed a critical piece of the recent federal court decision in Corren et al v. Sorrel et al. Judge Sessions ruled Vermont’s public financing law is essentially constitutional and Attorney General Sorrell’s 2014 enforcement action against former Lt. Governor candidate Dean Corren is not.
The case asked the court to rule on the legality of political party coordination to support a publicly financed candidate. In 2014, Dean Corren won the endorsement of the Progressive Party and Democratic Party for Lt Governor. Vermont’s public financing law outlines a number of exempt categories defining party-candidate coordination. Despite the letter of the law, Attorney General Sorrell slapped Corren and the Democratic Party with a significant fine for sending a coordinated email about a campaign event days before the election.
Traditional privately funded candidates routinely gain access to voter lists, communication and event coordination from their endorsing political parties, whereas publicly financed candidates are left to self-censor for fear of violating a complex law. Attorney General Sorrell’s 2014 enforcement action only added to the complexity of the law and hampered any reasonable person’s attempt to access public financing to run for statewide office. This was a tragedy for Vermonters looking to level the playing field in a private money “arms race” of sorts in campaigns.
The federal court offered a glimmer of hope for democracy and candidates hoping to gain equal footing to privately funded candidates by affirming a party and candidate can work together regardless of public or private funding. In fact, the decision explicitly noted coordination for events of three or more people is allowable – the exact issue the AG’s office cited as a 2014 violation of the law by the Corren campaign and VDP. Further, the court made it clear that if the state acts otherwise, the federal case (Corren vs. Sorrell) may be reopened to challenge all the constitutional issues raised in the original claim.
At the end of the day, this decision allows Vermonters to access public financing to run for office without fear of unfounded prosecution for coordinating with their political party. This is a right openly enjoyed by privately funded campaigns. This is a win for democracy. The rest is now left to the Vermont Legislature to address on whether it will reexamine the “gag order” imposed on publicly financed candidates announcing their intent to run before February 15th and fundraising limits under the law compared to privately financed candidates with essentially no limits.
The Vermont Progressive Party maintains a healthy democracy comes from elections free of excessive private funding, especially from corporations. We would all do better to take a page out of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ fundraising strategy to raise small donations from many individuals instead of relying on excessive larger private donations to advance campaigns. In the end democracy should be about individual voters, not money. Lt. Governor candidate David Zuckerman intends to run that type of campaign and this is a “win” for all Vermonters.