Malloy gains if campaign reform loses

The irony is thick. The governor's rationalization that one has to play by the rules as they are is disappointing. Making a politically calculated decision, the first governor elected using Connecticut's publicly financed campaign law stands watching a legal attack that could severely undermine it.

The legislature passed the Citizens' Election Program in the wake of the scandal that drove Republican Gov. John G. Rowland from office and into federal prison for a year. It was bipartisan, approved by a Democratic legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

It is straightforward. Participating candidates running for state office must demonstrate their viability by raising money in small donations, no more than $100. Once they meet the mandated threshold, with different standards depending on the office, they can qualify for public financing.

The intent is to insulate candidates from the corruptive influence of special interest money.

There is a catch. Candidates have to depend on the public funds alone and cannot accept outside donations.

The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) is challenging the details of those restrictions. It is asking a federal judge to set aside components that prohibit coordination between candidates - like Gov. Dannel P. Malloy - and groups that raise and spend money to influence state elections - like the DGA.

If the DGA prevails in the lawsuit, it would be free to contribute funds to groups supporting Malloy and coordinate those efforts with the Malloy campaign. Gov. Malloy has been an active fundraiser for the DGA. Pending a final decision, the association is asking Chief U.S. District Judge Janet C. Hall to set aside enforcement of the Connecticut campaign rules.

That would be convenient. As the Hartford Courant reported recently, it would allow the Connecticut governor to raise money for the DGA at a Democratic policy conference in upscale Greenwich later this month.

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, represented by the office of Attorney General George Jepsen (also a Democrat), is opposing the effort to water down the state's landmark campaign finance reform law. In a letter to the attorney general, several clean-elections advocacy groups called the case critical.

"The integrity of Connecticut's elections generally, and the publicly financed elections in particular, depend on the successful defense of the challenged 'coordination' restrictions," states the letter.

The state Republican Party is also fighting in court to uphold the law.

Why would Gov. Malloy, long a supporter of the campaign-finance reform laws, a man who used public funds to win in 2010 against well-funded opponents in both the primary and general elections, embrace this challenge to the law?

In a March 26 meeting with The Day editorial board, Gov. Malloy pointed to the Citizens United decision of 2010. In that 5-4 ruling, condemned by this newspaper, the high court found that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment. Therefore, the government may not restrict corporations, unions and other groups from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.

Gov. Malloy told us that while he disagreed with the Citizens United decision, he has to live by it and that means not allowing other candidates to gain an advantage because he will use public financing. That apparently involves finding a way to get DGA money into Connecticut and using it effectively to get him re-elected.

The DGA cites Citizens United in calling Connecticut's restrictions unconstitutional.

The Connecticut law is vulnerable. While not a party to the case, Gov. Malloy could have taken the high road and asked DGA not to wage this fight in his state. But perhaps it is asking too much for a pragmatic politician such as Gov. Malloy to place ideals ahead of gaining an advantage.

Citizens United continues to damage our political process by putting campaigns up for sale, flooding the market with attack ads and disillusioning voters.

Looking for a positive aspect, if there is an adverse decision in the Connecticut case, the Citizens' Election Program could still work well for state legislative races, which usually generate little if any money from outside groups.

As for the race for governor, however, the goal of reducing special-interest influence would be severely undermined.

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