The political perils of independent expenditure

Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a likely candidate for governor, endured some less-than-flattering press last week when the Wall Street Journal reported that John Arnold, a former Enron trader and hedge fund manager, wrote a six-figure check to EngageRI, an independent expenditure group that supported the treasurer's high-profile pension reform push.

The Providence Journal's Mike Stanton followed with a story of his own, revealing that Raimondo had connected Arnold and EngageRI - and further cementing her association with the group.

But will EngageRI prove a drag on her political prospects? At the moment, it seems unlikely. There's no evidence that Arnold or any of the other, unknown donors to the organization have benefited unduly from either pension reform or their association with the treasurer.

That said, the deep-pocketed independent expenditure group as adjunct to elected official is a relatively new phenomenon. And it can raise thorny questions about influence.

In June, for instance, the New York Times reported that gambling interests donated $2.4 million to the Committee to Save New York, an independent expenditure group supporting Governor Andrew Cuomo's agenda, just as the governor was developing plans to expand gambling in the state.

Cuomo strongly denied any link between the donations and his gambling advocacy. But the story did not look good.

The $2.4 million in contributions were but one chunk of the $17 million the Committee to Save New York raised in 2011. The group spent $12 million that year, making it the biggest lobbyist in Albany by far.

EngageRI spent nothing of that scale. But the $600,000 it poured into lobbying and advertising on behalf of pension reform in the fall of 2011 made it an outsize player in this state.

And the parallels to the Committee to Save New York don't end there. Cuomo, who asked real estate and business executives to found the Committee shortly after he took office, has counted on the group as a counterweight to the traditional power of labor unions in his state. And EngageRI served a similar function during the pension fight.

Raimondo, of course, is not the governor. And EngageRI's portfolio is not nearly as broad. More reason to suspect that any political fallout will be limited.

But if she ascends to the governor's chair and the group remains an ally, expect the scrutiny to ratchet up.


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