08/23/2010 03:25 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Restoring Democratic Elections: Remedies for Corporate Money-Driven, Top-Down Politics

One big take-away from the recent Colorado U.S. Senate election (and others) is the fact that only the moneyed elite, or those backed by moneyed elite, can run for office. President Obama, who eschewed special interest PAC money during his presidential run, has since demonstrated an affinity for high-dollar top-down elections.

Michael Bennet's money and corporate connections seemed to place him on a fast-track to the 2009 Colorado Senate appointment replacing Ken Salazar. At that time, a conversation reported between Michael Bennet, then Mayor John Hickenlooper's Chief of Staff (2003-2005), and Denver City Councilman Michael Hancock revealed that Bennet expressed a life wish to be in the U.S. Senate at least 4 years before his selection to fill the vacant Senate seat.

Bennet's appointment by Gov. Ritter dumbfounded many Colorado politicos. When Pueblo Democratic political consultant Wally Stealey inquired of the governor's office who was being considered for the appointment, Michael Bennet was not on the list of top 5 choices. Concluded Stealey, "We think [Bennet] is the wealthy man's candidate." Others surmised that Bennet's appointment was the result of being "well-connected."

Michael Bennet had the millions and the corporate connections to edge out candidates with greater legislative experience and public service. A Denver Post article at the time of his Senate appointment noted, "...his numerous contacts to high-profile and powerful people indicated he had impressive fundraising potential, according to a source close to the governor."

An education adviser to Obama's 2008 presidential campaign who was considered for Secretary of Education, Bennet's initial selection to fill Colorado's vacant U.S. Senate seat was likely influenced by Obama. Ultimately, President Obama heavily weighted the outcome of Colorado's 2010 U.S. senatorial election.

In service of Bennet's Senate campaign, President Obama's machine was placed in high gear in an unprecedented effort to organize the party hierarchy and convince voters to support "Obama's choice." Wrote a Bennet operative, "The new Democrats (the Obama generation) will be pushed by Organizing for America to do the President's bidding." It would have seemed more honest for Democrats to pass a Constitutional amendment granting the president the right to choose Colorado's senator.

Two days after the election, an indication of the full weight of Democratic Party resources and money placed in service of the Bennet campaign began to be reported. In the Rovian, Chicago-style political model, candidate debates and honest discussion of issues were avoided. Instead, copious money was expended profiling voters and directing highly-targeted robo calls and mailings to specific demographic populations. One piece was designed to (wrongly) scare seniors that Speaker Andrew Romanoff wants to privatize Social Security. Additional political ads spread untruths accusing Romanoff of taking corporate/special interest money in the senate campaign (he did not), and conflating what he collected as a state legislator - the total of which was less than Bennet takes in a week.

Almost $8 million was collected by Bennet through the primary, the majority from out-of-state, supplemented by Democratic National Committee spending. Mobilized for Bennet were the Democratic National Committee and Organizing for America, which worked out of Colorado State Party Headquarters and at least two Democratic County (Larimer and Garfield Counties) party offices during the campaign. Those efforts seemed to contradict Colorado Party Chair Pat Waak's emailed warning in 2009 to Democratic Committee persons emphasizing state party rules instructing that the Democratic Party shall not give the "impression" of endorsement "of one Democratic candidate over another" in the interest of "a fair and open process."

The DNC and Cabinet members, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis were among those enlisted by the White House to raise money, do calling and mailings and stump for Bennet. Some voters reported receiving recorded robo calls from establishment Democrats or celebrities like Gary Hart or George Lopez.

The 2010 election marks yet another cynical turn in manipulative U.S. politics, and was celebrated by the media as "a victory for Obama" and for the Democratic Party. Proud of their role in tipping the election to Bennet, the White House has shared with media their wide-ranging interventions into the race, beginning with a $700,000 fundraiser in February, and accelerating through primary election day.

Reported the press, "The White House role in Sen. Michael Bennet's campaign intensified in the closing weeks of the primary as Democrats put unmatched resources into the state to help redeem the tarnished reputation of the 2008 Obama machine."

Bennet campaign surrogates began very early to impugn and slander Andrew Romanoff, another tool of distraction from issues. The corporate media acted like Bennet lap dogs, echoing his talking points, and printing scurrilous pieces about Romanoff. Interestingly, both the Washington Post and The Denver Post have since the election removed from online archives columnist Dana Milbank's defamatory piece attacking Romanoff, "Romanoff is tarring one of the good guys," though Romanoff's response, cut to 286 words, remains. Milbank also tried to equate PAC money that Speaker Romanoff took during his time in the legislature (in $100 or $200 contributions) to the thousands of dollars collected by Bennet from a single lobbyist. Perhaps loyal to the brotherhood, Dana Milbanks noted that he knows Michael's brother James, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, cited by one profiler as a possible Bennet "ally in the press."

The Denver Post, praised and justified Bennet's acumen for "complicated financial matters" even as they sat for months on a story about his high-risk Wall St. investment deal that has compromised Denver Public School funds.

There is much besides the manipulation of voters in the recent election to trouble the most placid voter. The corporate Democratic Party and President Obama have demonstrated disdain for voters, seeking to trump Colorado voters' choice by actively campaigning and raising money for Michael Bennet before the August primary. The assumption that the candidate with the largest amount of money should win is a cynical calculation that corporations and special interests deserve to prevail in the high-stakes money game that politics has become - exactly the point of Andrew Romanoff's campaign, which took no special interest money and was outspent by Bennet by $4.1 million..

Reclaiming Democracy - 3-Part Pledge for Legislators

Toward reclaiming democracy for the people, delegations of voters organized by Colorado MoveOn.Org are visiting members of Colorado's congressional delegation this summer to persuade them to sign a pledge to join "the Other 98% of us" - voters who want to elect candidates "who will make democracy work again for the Other 98% of us who can't afford to buy elections and hire lobbyists." MoveOn members have visited all congressional offices at least once since early July. On August 11, 48 voters went to Rep. Ed Perlmutter's office, requesting that he take the Pledge. Rep. Perlmutter is among legislators who have indicated some weariness with the repetitive game of dialing for dollars.

The 3-pronged Pledge:
1) Amend the Constitution to overturn Citizens United vs. FEC, which gave corporations the same First Amendment rights as people.
2) Pass the Fair Elections Now Act (FENA) for public financing to candidates supported by small donors to create a level playing field with corporate-backed and self-funded candidates.
3) Pass the Lobbyist Reform Act closing the revolving door between government service and corporate lobbying, prohibiting lobbyist gifts and free travel to government officials, and posting online attendees and content of all meetings between lobbyists and government officials.

The measures are intended to help counter unlimited corporate campaign dollars unleashed by the U.S. Supreme Court majority in Citizens United v. the Federal Elections Commission.

Of the Colorado delegation, only Rep. Jared Polis has signed the pledge thus far. Candidates Andrew Romanoff (D) and Bob Kinsey (Green) signed it. Rep. Mike Coffman has refused to sign anything presented by MoveOn. His Democratic opponent John Flerlage is considering it. A follow-up visit to Rep. Diana DeGette is planned this week.