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‘People’s Pledge’ Cut Outside Spending in Rhode Island Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

Sept. 9, 2014

‘People’s Pledge’ Cut Outside Spending in Rhode Island Democratic Gubernatorial Primary

Statement of Adam Crowther, Researcher, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Pre-emptive action by three candidates in today’s Rhode Island Democratic gubernatorial primary has succeeded in freezing out unregulated outside spending made possible by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The “People’s Pledge,” signed by Rhode Island State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and former Obama administration official Clay Pell, appears to have been successful in preventing outside groups from buying broadcast and print advertisements to influence the election. In the primary season, there was only one purchase of the type of advertisement that the pledge intended to discourage. The Providence Fraternal Order of Police purchased a newspaper advertisement costing $1,200, which is 1/10,000th of the approximately $12 million spent by the candidates on the race.

In its analysis, “Rolling Back the Tide,” Public Citizen describes the origins of the Rhode Island pledge and highlights its success. After news broke that a Houston couple contributed $100,000 to a super PAC that was formed to support Raimondo’s bid for governor, the three major candidates signed the pledge in April 2014, after a negotiation facilitated by the good government group Common Cause Rhode Island.

Modeled after the pledge signed by then U.S. Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Elizabeth Warren (D), the three candidates pledged that if an outside group spent money on behalf of one of them in specified media, the candidate the expenditure was intended to benefit would have to donate 50 percent of the cost of the expenditure to charity. Outside groups were defined as corporations, unions, 527 organizations, 501(c) organizations and super PACs. In Rhode Island, after the Providence Fraternal Order of Police purchased its newspaper advertisement, the benefitting campaigns each agreed to pay the required donation.

In the wake of Citizens United, candidates have fewer and fewer ways to combat outside spending in their elections. But by taking the pledge, these candidates found a way to prevent ordinary citizens’ voices from being drowned out by big money and outside spending. More candidates, including the general election candidates in Rhode Island, should take the pledge to ensure our elections are not flooded with negative ads sponsored by outside groups.