By M.D. Kittle | Watchdog.org
MADISON, Wis. — Often the best way to gauge where someone is headed is to know where she’s been. Past is prologue.
The former California political speech regulator, tapped in 2013 by President Obama to serve on the FEC, is a left-leaning Democrat and self-described “activist at heart,” on a mission against so-called “dark money” in politics — she says, regardless of party.
But Ravel is as pure a partisan player as they come, says Ronald Rotunda, a distinguished law professor at Chapman University and former commissioner of the California Fair Political Practices Commission when Ravel served as chairwoman of the campaign finance regulator.
“I think she basically replicates Democratic Party talking points,” Rotunda told Watchdog.org in an extended interview this week.
“When I was on the commission it was supposed to be bipartisan, but in practice it was nonpartisan. We just tried to uphold the law,” he said of his fellow commissioners. “I think (Ravel) made it more partisan.”
Rotunda and Ravel had their share of disagreements on the California commission, although Rotunda said he never found the chairwoman disagreeable. Just set in her ideological ways, predisposed to certain political prejudices.
None more so than Ravel’s distrust — and distaste — of forms of Internet-based political speech.
“She has a desire to decide things by trying to announce new definitions that sometimes don’t make a lot of sense,” Rotunda said. “When she talks about ‘dark money’ what she’s really talking about is trying to regulate the Internet, and she’s talked about it a lot.
The former election commissioner laid out his view of Ravel’s zealous push in 2012 to regulate political speech on the Internet in a November op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Ravel’s rules would have reach into the blogoshphere, beyond the borders of California, demanding disclosure of Internet-based political and policy reporters and commenters and any connections to the politicians they write about. The concept seemed to be made of the same stuff that fueled Senate Democrats’ litmus test proposal to determine who’s a real journalist, and who isn’t.
As Rotunda put it, “Californians raised a fuss,” and Ravel’s Internet transparency campaign went nowhere.
It would appear the new FEC chairwoman wants to bring her California crusade to the national campaign finance stage.
The FEC regulates paid Internet advertising, but free Internet sites are exempt from campaign-finance regulations.
In October, Ravel said “the Commission turned a blind eye to the Internet’s growing force in the political arena.” She said a “re-examination of the Commission’s approach to the Internet and other emerging technologies is long overdue.”
“Since its inception, this effort to protect individual bloggers and online commentators has been stretched to cover slickly produced ads aired solely on the Internet but paid for by the same organizations and the same large contributors as the actual ads aired on TV,” Ravel said of the 2006 regulation in a statement released in October. The chairwoman said she would like to hold hearings this year on the matter.
Republicans on the commission have pledged to fight regulations they say would only serve to freeze political speech and could lead to IRS-style political targeting of Internet sites and their creators.
Former FEC Chairman Lee Goodman warned such regulations would give the federal government the power to levy onerous rules on websites such as the Drudge Report or YouTube. The list of possible targets also could include Watchdog.org, a nonprofit investigative reporting website.
“I vow to fight any additional regulation on online political speech,” Goodman said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon in October.
“What Talleyrand once said of French royalty applies to Ann Ravel,” Rotunda wrote in the Wall Street Journal piece. “She has ‘learned nothing and forgotten nothing.’”
Watchdog tried to contact Ravel for comment Wednesday, but an assistant said the chairwoman was too busy preparing for Thursday’s FEC meeting.
Ravel put on her moderate face last year for a national “listening tour” that she said was aimed at hearing from people “across the political spectrum” about the state of campaign finance in America.
Her critics dubbed “The Future of Elections and Democracy” a big government dog-and-pony show to build a case for more regulation of privacy and protected anonymous speech. The sessions were loudly endorsed and promoted byRepresent.Us, a left-leaning group bills itself as a “non-partisan movement to pass tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America, and end the legalized corruption that has come to define modern politics.”
In an interview late last year with Watchdog, Ravel said there needs to be a carefully struck line between transparency and privacy, particularly when it comes to disclosure.
“I understand that disclosure is a complicated topic and that in some ways disclosure of small donors may not be significant because what we want to know is who is influencing the elections so that we can make thoughtful decisions,” the commissioner said.
But small donors and average citizens have been hit hard in the name of full disclosure, particularly in Ravel’s California amid the state’s heated ballot propositions.
“What we found when people had been found to have contributed money to Proposition 8 (California’s ill-fated ban on same-sex marriage), they had their cars keyed, they found mysterious white powder in their mailboxes. One fellow who owned a diner lost business because his daughter gave money to support Proposition 8.”
In a 2009 analysis, the conservative Heritage Foundation found Prop 8 supporters had been “subjected to harassment, intimidation, vandalism, racial scapegoating, blacklisting, loss of employment, economic hardships, angry protests, violence, at least one death threat, and gross expressions of anti-religious bigotry.”
“Much of the hostility directed against Prop 8 supporters has been facilitated by a California law that requires the disclosure of certain personal information of individuals who donate $100 or more in support of or opposition to a ballot measure,” the report notes. “Information subject to disclosure includes the donor’s full name, occupation, and employer. Once this information is disclosed to the State of California, the state then publishes this information on its Web site, enabling anyone with Internet access to view detailed donor reports online in html format or in a downloadable Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.”
While Ravel told Watchdog last year the Supreme Court, as well as the FEC, has acknowledged disclosure is “important for democracy,” she said in instances of “extreme harassment or threats” the court and the FEC “recognize an exemption for disclosure.”
“But I think the problem comes in when people confuse disagreement with someone’s political viewpoint as harassment,” she said. “Exercising a First Amendment right to speak out against someone’s political view or to boycott, that’s a First Amendment right. That’s not harassment.”
Ravel knows firsthand what it’s like to be in the middle of “angry protests.”
She told California’s Capitol Morning Report that, as an undergrad at University of California, Berkeley in the 1970s, she was “tear-gassed too many times to count,” and that she remains an “activist at heart.”
It’s that activism that worries people like Rotunda. The former California election commissioner said Ravel’s partisan approach to regulation is part of a broader movement by Democrats to chill, and eventually, criminalize political speech they do not agree with.
“The beginning of tyranny really happens when prosecutors, instead of looking for crimes to prosecute, search for defendants to prosecute,” he said. “And investigations are really expensive to defend, so you never have to prosecute or indict anyone; you just have to investigate.”