Kimberly Reed’s Dark Money is a chilling but fascinating look at the way money from hidden, out-of-state and even foreign government sources can be used to influence or disrupt state-level political races in this country. Reed uses a state legislature race in Montana as an example, where out-of-state organizations use dark money to fund an effort to gain control of its legislature and direct public policy for those special interests. Although the specific example is Montana, it it is a clear illustration of the power of unlimited hidden money to influence local elections in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, a cautionary tale for other states also being targeted for similar efforts. Continue reading…
Montana, as the documentary points out, is unique in some ways. Montana has low population but abundant natural resources. The state has had lots of experience with outside interests trying to control and exploit their resources, and leaving residents of the state to clean up or live with the consequences. That history has made Montanans both more wary and skilled in dealing with those outsider corporations and individuals. The state also has a history of citizen politicians, who hold jobs besides their political ones and stay part of the community, and a tradition of community involvement.
This is not a Democrats versus Republicans, or conservative versus liberal, fight, but a fight for local control of elections and policy. The Republican party is the target of this well-funded dark money effort to direct public policy in Montana on which Reed’s documentary focuses. One particular state senate race gets a lot of attention, but the documentary extends its focus to include other examples within the state and the national picture.
The key to this is dark money, the money funneled through non-profit 501c4 organizations that are not required to disclose their donors. “Follow the money” is an old phrase in newspapers but dark money thwarts the public’s right to know. It prevents the public from finding out who is funding public efforts like direct mailings or political ads, information that can reveal motivations behind those political or public policy efforts, and who benefits from them. Legally, these campaigns are not supposed to coordinate with the politicians’ campaign, but the use of multiple organizations funded by dark money’s hidden donors can mask that coordination.
Director Kimberly Reed follows the story from multiple viewpoints, including journalists covering the Montana capital, various Republican citizen politicians, and the tiny Montana government agency tasked with overseeing their elections. We also hear from a former member of the Federal Election Commission, the FEC, the national organization that is supposed enforce election laws, which reveals that lack of oversight is a national problem, and one spanning more than one presidential administration or party. The documentary takes a look at how nonprofit 501c4 organizations through which dark money is funneled, such as Western Tradition Partnership, also known as American Tradition Partnership, and the National Right to Work campaign, which aims to get rid of unions. As one speaker notes, organizations like these aim to influence the outcome of elections because it “doesn’t want to lobby them (politicians) – it wants to own them right from the beginning.”
Reed does a masterful job pulling this all together, letting the people of Montana speak, and allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions about the national problem. Anyone who values democracy in this country should take a look at this revealing documentary.