Money, money, money

Federal Election Commission is failing miserably, chairwoman says

Ann Ravel, chair of the Federal Election Commission, on how campaign contributions corrupt America’s politics

Ann Ravel (Kendrick Brinson/The New York Times)

The harshest attacks on government typically come from the outside — from disgruntled citizens or opposition politicians, or wannabes seeking to replace those in power. Ann Ravel is different. She lobs her grenades from a spot that’s as inside as it gets: the chairwoman’s seat on the Federal Election Commission.

Dysfunctional. Paralyzed. Betraying the public—Ravel doesn’t mince words when accusing her own commission of failing in its duty to police the multi-billion-dollar campaign cash landscape.

Increasingly vocal about her frustrations, Ravel says the commission simply is not doing its job. Instead of going after potential spending and fund-raising violations, the six-member body gridlocks, evenly split between Democrats and Republicans on key decisions and investigations.

“I have concluded I have to get the message out that this system that people expect is taking care of campaign finance violations is not. And there needs to be public pressure to have something done about it,” Ravel told Women in the World.

The rancor and stalemates show no sign of subsiding, but Ravel says she’ll soldier on. “I do not think of quitting because I do not want to give in. I never want to give in.”

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Ravel didn’t always aspire to be a political watchdog. A philosophy major at Berkeley, she decided on law school, motivated to “make a difference” by her meteorologist father and her Brazilian-born mother who worked as a court translator.

Her hopes to be a litigator for the underprivileged initially met a round of misogynistic cold shoulders after her 1974 graduation—“There are no women litigators,” one firm admonished her. But after clerking for a California court, she landed at a firm specializing in labor cases and then spent three decades as an attorney in the Santa Clara County counsel’s office. She was county counsel for 11 years, winning recognition for her consumer advocacy and for creating a team focused on elder abuse.

In her late 50s, Ravel felt it was a good time for a little reinvention. She checked in with friends close to the new Obama administration, and won a Justice Department post as deputy assistant attorney general for torts and consumer litigation. In 2011 she returned to California, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the state’s version of the FEC, the Fair Political Practices Commission. She was the panel’s chair when President Obama plucked her for the FEC in 2013.

Ravel sees her campaign finance work as an extension of her consumer protection background.

Her term has coincided with the “dark money” avalanche: unlimited campaign dollars raised by a variety of organizations that can keep their donors anonymous. A champion of transparency since her days in California, Ravel wants to see more disclosure for public accountability as tax-exempt groups play a bigger role in political spending.

“The courts have said people need to stand up for their political views. There is a huge societal benefit to disclosure of who’s behind the message,” she said.

Ravel recently shared these and more views with Women in the World:

Women in the World: You recently hosted a forum at the FEC on women in politics. Why?

Ann Ravel: I discovered that the United States is among the lowest in the world for women’s representation in Congress, and in governors’ seats nationwide. Things about how campaign finance affects women are related to the FEC, like super-PACs that are 95 percent run by white men so the people who get the money are generally also white men. That impacts the people who are candidates to begin with and who can compete in our system. Just getting people together to talk about these issues is part of what the FEC is about, with an important role in our democratic process to allow all people to compete fairly in elections.

WITW: Can the FEC do anything to foster gender parity?

AR: I don’t think it’s within our role to be able to do regulations about it, but we do make recommendations to Congress every year about potential legislation. There may be things we could, if we were so inclined, recommend. A potential way to achieve parity would be to encourage parties that are regulated by Congress to include some parity, or more efforts to search out women candidates. We’re not going to have quotas; a number of things aren’t constitutionally appropriate in the United States. But asking parties, because of their special status in our political system, to have more of a focus on that would not be out of line.

WITW: What is your biggest concern about the campaign finance system today?

AR: My biggest concern is not that there is a lot of money in it, but that because the money seems to be mainly coming from individual wealthy people or corporate interests early in the campaign cycle, that dominance is outweighing the interests of most of the people. Somehow we have to get to a system that encourages people to participate not just by voting but by giving money so that the policy needs of most people will be listened to as much as those of wealthy donors. I don’t in any way decry the right of wealthy people to contribute. The more people who contribute, the better. But last year in the midterm election, the total number of contributions was down while the amount of money given was greater.

WITW: We have a situation now where likely candidates who have not come right out and said they are running for president are raising all kinds of undisclosed money. Is that contrary to the spirit of federal election law and should something be done about it?

AR: I can’t comment about anything that anyone is doing now. It may come before us, and it would be inappropriate. But very clearly by statute and regulation, there is such a thing as ‘testing the waters,’ certain things that can be done to determine if someone wants to run or not. You can fundraise for that purpose. Hopefully this will be an area that the FEC will be looking into.

WITW: You drew criticism last year by wanting to discuss paid Internet political ads, since the FEC already regulates the same ads on TV. The commission didn’t act. Are you pursuing it further?

AR: What I said was misrepresented. I said paid Internet ads run by political committees are no different than any other, and are now commonplace in politics. Why should they not also include disclosure?All I said was we need to discuss it to see what the correct approach is, because there is an old regulation from 2006. It was intended to protect bloggers and people who were just casual writers, and no one wants to impair that. It never came to a vote. But I got thousands of misogynistic and life threatening [messages] on the Internet.

WITW: Were those misogynistic reactions unusual for you?

AR: This incident and some subsequent ones have been the first experiences that I’ve had like that for probably 10 years. It was surprising and kind of creepy. Some were really graphic and outrageous. I thought it was amazing that it would be sent so casually to a person who is essentially doing her job.

WITW: Starting your career, what challenges did you face as a young woman attorney?

AR: As a woman you stood out in court. People tended to notice what you were doing in a positive way as well as negative. I will never forget one case I tried in San Francisco federal court. I was the senior lawyer. I was with a man, my junior associate, from county counsel’s office. The judge would not call me up to the bench. He only called my junior associate. I had other experiences I’ll never forget, sexual advances from a partner, and from a member of the board of supervisors. It’s important to remember that those were the days when there were no laws against sexual harassment, and it was prevalent.

WITW: Are people jaded about the influence of money in politics, or is the subject so arcane they just don’t care?

AR: Partly they are jaded, and partly they just don’t know what to do. The constant talk about too much money, that it’s corrupting, that politicians are bad — I don’t like that kind of talk. It leads to more negative views of government and of politicians, which I think is unfair. And it leads people to think there’s nothing to do about it. There needs to be a different message: The system is bad for everyone. This is a bipartisan issue. People need to understand that it’s not just about money in politics but it impacts the policies. It impacts their lives in a very fundamental way. If people understand it better and recognize how significant it is, maybe they will make it clear to their Congress people that they want something to happen.

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