Who's behind those TV commercials attacking Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle? Wouldn't you like to know?
The group airing the ads — the Nebraska Leadership Forum — doesn't have to name its donors since it organized as an “educational” group and not as a political committee. (A second group advertising in the race, Omaha Tomorrow, did say that a key backer is former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Ricketts, but it also says that its ads are “educational.”)
It's fine to join the debate, but what do these donors have to hide? Trying to influence Omaha's mayoral race without disclosing the names and agendas of donors does a disservice to voters.
Look at the television ads World-Herald staff writer Robynn Tysver highlighted. They mock Suttle's own television ad supportive of gun control by using similar graphics, lighting and mood elements to share how many times the city's Democratic mayor has raised taxes.
That's a perfectly legitimate campaign issue, one raised by other candidates and those openly advocating their points of view.
But are Omahans really expected to swallow the explanation that a group of private donors spent $44,000 on an anti-Suttle ad without regard to the May 14 election? The ad, which doesn't tell viewers how to vote, just happened to start running the day after the city primary, but only “to educate the public”? That stretches credibility.
Nebraskans heard similar nonsense when groups attacked candidates, Republican and Democratic, during the state's recent U.S. Senate race and during congressional and state legislative contests in 2010. During the mayoral primary, candidate Jean Stothert was attacked with fliers from a shadowy group called Omaha Alliance for the Public Trust, which said it got all of its funding from a Colorado group.
The executive director of the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission, Frank Daley, notes that the use of nonprofit groups to criticize political candidates has been going on for some time at the national level and is filtering down to other races.
Full disclosure of these donors and their contributions is in the public's interest.
It is something that lawmakers in Lincoln, Des Moines and Washington should work to require. Nebraska legislators have taken runs at this issue before and should again.
The U.S. Supreme Court, when it set out its Citizens United decision that freed political speech from arbitrary limits, underscored the importance of public disclosure. “Transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” the court said.
Certainly, as we have said before, political campaigns need contributors so they can purchase the ads that put information and arguments in front of voters. The Supreme Court has said it's a form of free speech. And government regulation of political speech is a troubling notion.
But a system that encourages secret donations to private, nonprofit “educational” groups is equally troubling. Anonymous attack ads leave voters with no one to hold accountable.
If people care enough to spend money on a political race, they should care enough to put their names behind it. If they fear either that their reputations will be damaged by speaking out or that their messages will be ignored because of who they are, all the more reason to tell the public who's talking.
One of the exceptional aspects of democracy is that all citizens can have their say. People who want to participate in the political arena need to have the courage to stand up for their convictions in plain view of their fellow citizens, whether in a Colonial-era town-hall meeting or in a 21st-century television ad.
Political communication is better when we know who is advocating what. Then we can decide for ourselves how much weight to give the messenger and the message.