John Kerry has made campaign finance reform an issue ever since he first ran for the Senate in 1984. In fact, the Massachusetts Democrat has been such an ardent and outspoken critic of political action committees that he has refused to accept donations from such organizations during all four of his senatorial campaigns.
But the man who has repeatedly decried the influence of PACs on the nation’s political system nevertheless began his quest for the presidency by forming one. In December 2001, as a prelude to his presidential run, Kerry created a federal PAC and a non-federal 527 Committee, both named the Citizen Soldier Fund. A number of influential members of Congress, including most of the presidential candidates, have such PACs, commonly known as “leadership committees.” Politicians use the leadership committees to win political support by distributing money among various party organizations and candidates across the country. They also use PAC resources to foot travel bills.
Kerry’s PAC raised roughly $1 million through the end of 2002 and disbursed nearly all of it. At the time it was formed, the Citizen Soldiers Fund’s non-federal account could theoretically have accepted any amount from a donor. But Kerry, perhaps as a concession to the reform constituency of which he was a part, said the fund would not take donations of more than $10,000 from one individual or organization in any year. Just before the McCain-Feingold legislation was to take effect consigning soft money—at least some types of it—to history, the senator couldn’t resist one last grab at the political money that he voted to ban. By the end of October, the self-imposed cap was gone.
Before Kerry closed the account some time before the end of 2002, the Citizen Soldier Fund raised approximately $1.35 million in soft money, thanks mainly to a series of big checks written by some of his long-time patrons. The largest donor to the Fund was Miami lawyer Milton Ferrell, who gave $59,000. Other big givers included the CEO of Boston Capital, John P. Manning, who contributed $55,000, International Data Group chairman Patrick J. McGovern ($50,000) and the American International Group, Inc. ($30,000). The committee spent nearly $1.3 million, which was virtually everything that it raised. Though its stated aim was to help the Democrats across the country, two-thirds of the soft money contributed to the Citizen Soldier Fund was channeled to its federal account and to candidates in a handful of states, among them Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Records show that the non-federal committee distributed close to $147,000 in Iowa, more than $120,000 in New Hampshire and $58,000 in South Carolina. It spent $89,000 in Florida, the state that decided the last presidential election. In addition, Kerry’s committee made big contributions to a pair of Senate colleagues who were facing tough re-election campaigns: $181,000 went to Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, who won his race, and more than $81,000 Senator Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost.
The purpose of Kerry’s playing “Good Samaritan” was purely political. It’s no coincidence that he doled out a quarter of the money raised through the soft money account in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the early primary and caucus states that can make or break a presidential campaign. Understandably, he needed allies there, and the senator —like some of his presidential opponents —was using the PAC money to help build support for the campaign. Nonetheless, Kerry’s distribution of campaign cash across the country is seemingly at odds with his oft-stated position on campaign finance reform, which early on graced his Web site: “Elections must be more than auctions, and money must no longer drown out the role of citizens in our democracy.”
Kerry maintained that he hasn’t changed his long-held view on the pernicious influence of PAC money, arguing that the Citizen Soldier Fund was necessary for the sake of a Democratic majority. “I’ve come to acknowledge the unpleasant and unfortunate truth that campaign finance and other critical political reforms will remain stymied in Congress until Democrats obtain real working majorities in Washington and in state legislatures across the nation,” he said. “It’s become necessary, I believe, for every leader of this party to employ all legal and appropriate means to assist Democratic candidacies at all political levels.”
In other words, the dark cloud of special interest money that hangs over the political process won’t be lifted until it elects politicians like Kerry to majority status in every legislature in the country, all the while being granted the favors it seeks.