What common accomplishment do Sen. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump share in this year’s presidential race? Answer: Raising the profile of the small donor.
As polar opposites, both candidates have put a spotlight on the value of small campaign contributions. Sanders’ campaign represents an important twist in the era of super PACs. To date, he has raised $41.5 million from 1.3 million small donors, pushing back against the egregious Supreme Court Citizens United ruling, which gave corporations and unions the green light to spend unlimited sums on political campaigns.
Amazingly, even though he has consistently pledged that he doesn’t need anyone else’s money to run, billionaire Donald Trump is second in small-donor contributions overall, and has far more than any other Republican contender. When you consider what Trump’s small donors had to say about why they donated, it’s even more surprising. In the Oct. 19 Associated Press article, “Small-donors flock to Trump, help power his campaign,” a commercial real estate broker says he contributed because he felt an obligation to help. “I just feel in good conscience, that if you support somebody, you should contribute to help offset some of his costs. He shouldn’t have to spend all his money.”
While giving voice and influence to small donors is admirable, it is the sudden rise and now sustained popularity of Bernie Sanders that truly demonstrates the collective power of small donors. This is particularly so when you consider that 99 percent of his contributors can give again and again, as their average contribution of $30 is nowhere near the individual cap of $2,700. Millionaires who have capped out must give to PACs, and so far the super PACs are not having the same degree of influence as they’ve had in previous presidential primaries.
Rick Perry and Scott Walker both had millions of dollars in super PACs, yet they have dropped out of the presidential race. Jeb Bush’s and Marco Rubio’s super PACs have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, yet their polling support among Republican voters is in the single digits. Between Sander’s unexpected challenge to Hillary Clinton and Trump’s front-runner status, this presidential race is like none other. Between these major candidate, the role of small donors has risen at a time when the commanding influence of super PACs appears to be lessening.
The other hopeful development comes from two recent court rulings on guns — one from a ruling involving a store called Badger Guns, the other from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
With the recent shooting in Roseburg, Oregon, we have yet another school mass shooting searing at the hearts of parents, family and community, and the subject of gun control is back again as a national issue. My anger and frustration at seeing another senseless killing of young adults gets quickly counter-punched by knowing we have a Congress incapable of responding to even the basics of gun control such as background checks. How many more preventable mass shootings do we need to witness?!
Needing somewhere to go with my high level of frustration, I am relieved to learn that at least the courts appear to be moving in the right direction. The case against Badger Guns comes from two injured policemen who brought the lawsuit forward in order to hold the store owner liable for the criminal outcome of what in the business is called “a straw purchase” where another person knowingly buys a gun for someone who cannot legally purchase one.
It was well-known among gun buyers that Badger Guns was the place to go for straw purchases. According to the officers’ lawsuit, there were clear signals that the purchaser intended to sell the gun from the start. The gun ended up in the hands of an 18-year-old who seriously injured both policemen. On Oct. 13, a jury ordered the owner of Badger Guns to pay $6 million for its role in the illegal gun sale. This is the first legal chink in the armor in a law pushed by the NRA that gave gun manufacturers and dealers blanket immunity from being sued. Gun safety activists see this a breakthrough lawsuit against gun sellers.
Another recent court ruling brings us back to the killing of 26 school children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary in December 2012. After the failure of Congress to act, the state of New York and Connecticut passed gun control laws that banned semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines.
A coalition of firearm dealers, sports shooters and gun owners filed suit to claim that these banned weapons infringed on their 2nd Amendment rights to possess firearms. On Oct. 19, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that these bans did not violate their constitutional right because there was a substantial relationship between bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and the “important — indeed, compelling — state interest in controlling crime.”
In an ABC News interview on the same day as the ruling, Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes said, “When used, these weapons tend to result in more numerous wounds, more serious wounds and more victims. These weapons are disproportionately used in crime, and particularly in criminal mass shootings.”
There is a clear demonstration that reasonable gun control can proceed without infringing on 2nd Amendment rights. This ruling shows that there is a way to proceed without taking away rights to possess firearms — it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Within one week of each other, there were two significant rulings on gun control. I did not see this coming. Nor did I see Donald Trump being second only to Bernie Sanders in small donor contributions. We have a long way to go to address gun violence in our society; we have an equally challenging path in election reform, but history has shown that big changes have small beginnings.
• Kate Troll serves on the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly. The views expressed are her own.