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A free pass for the state's largest lobby

Sure, lobbying is constitutionally protected, but why is one special interest seemingly immune to calls for reform?

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Much of what is said and written about those dastardly "special interests," especially during campaigns, is nonsense. This is the case for no other reason than that the First Amendment is quite clear that Americans have the perfect right to seek redress for grievances by petitioning their government by what has come to be known as lobbying.

Granted, there's "lobbying" and then there's "LOBBYING," with "Big Oil" being this year's behemoth. But given that the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board lists more than 400 Minnesota-connected organizations starting with the letter "M" alone availing themselves of lobbyists, it's safe to say there's nothing inherently giant-sized or unnatural about the act of lobbying. For every heavyweight such as Medtronic, Medica or the Mayo Clinic, there are dozens of more modest groups such as the Minnesota Elk Breeders Association, the Minnesota Floorcovering Contractors Association, and Midwifery NOW!

Nevertheless, if being a true special interest is a function of size and clout, how might one classify the following Minnesota outfit?

According to the Campaign Finance and Disclosure Board website, it currently has 50 registered lobbyists in the state. By comparison, 3M has eight, Best Buy has four and General Mills has one.

The organization in question has a political action committee. How much did it give in 2006 to candidates, "party units" and the like? More than $2.73 million in cash and another $134,000 in in-kind services, for a total of $2.869 million -- almost all of which went to the fortunes of one party only.

On being elected to the presidency of this particular organization in 2007, the ambitious fellow was quoted in this newspaper as declaring, "We want it so we are setting the agenda" for all of Minnesota regarding the group's crucially important and expensive public service.

Nationally, the two parent organizations of this Minnesota enterprise are even richer in numbers and esteemed self-conceptions. One claims 3.2 million members and the other merely 1.4 million. Financial data about their political activities are hard to decipher, but one scholar, Myron Lieberman, almost 10 years ago, estimated their combined revenues to be in the vicinity of $1.4 billion. This was back when a billion dollars was considered real money.

As long ago as 1993, one of their affiliates, in opposing an initiative in another state, aired enough television commercials so that average voters saw them up to 100 times. The affiliate also ran what was then described as the largest phone bank in the "history of American politics," with more than 24,000 volunteers completing more than 940,000 calls. Updating matters, more than 200 members of just one of the two nationwide groups were delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Who might these Minnesota and national organizations be? It's not a hard question. The answer is teachers unions: Education Minnesota here at home, and the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers countrywide.

To be clear, as long as they observe all disclosure and other rules, they all have the constitutionally protected right to do what they've been doing. But when was the last time, in any stump speech recitation of big, bad special interests, did you hear any mention of the NEA or the AFT? Surely such discouraging words were never heard on the Front Range last week.

Nor, needless to say, were such words expected, especially given the fact that the NEA (in its own words) "has launched a $50 million campaign to elect a pro-public education president."

Are both parties often constrained in what they say and do, especially during campaigns, so as not to antagonize their strongest supporters (and not just in terms of money)? Of course they are. But I've been hearing all these unusually lofty and lovely things recently about how torches are being passed to a new generation of Americans intent on ridding politics of old ways and toxins. Giving such utopians and rhetoricians their due, maybe all their gaseous passing really will lead to politicians no longer excoriating certain "special interests" while giving totally free passes to those run by buddies.

Why are you laughing?

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and president of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis, for which he is also a registered lobbyist.

This commentary originally appeared in the Star Tribune on August 30, 2008.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted.

 

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