In the Senate District 41 Republican primary that pitted incumbent Clark Jolley against Fairview Baptist Church Pastor Paul Blair, at least three groups sought influence through “independent expenditures,” meaning they were not allowed to coordinate with candidates.
Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, campaigning norms have shifted: nonprofit organizations may now participate in elections by making independent expenditures; corporate and individual giving limits on independent expenditures are lifted; and restrictions on independent expenditure advertising content are gone, as well.
Oklahoma City saw the effects of the new rules during the 2011 City Council elections when two groups — Forward IV, funded by the Greater Oklahoma City Chamber, and another funded by the Oklahoma City firefighters union — set up and funneled money through tax-exempt social welfare groups.
One group participating in several elections — the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future — purchased TV and radio advertisements favoring Jolley in his reelection bid, as well as ads against Blair.
The ads, which Blair said were misleading, allege that the challenger failed to pay franchise taxes on businesses he was involved in, causing those businesses to be suspended by the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
On June 21, Blair filed suit against Jolley, the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future and its members, alleging they “persisted” with ads “designed with malice and presented with reckless disregard for the truth.”
In a news release from the Blair camp, Blair said he tried to call Jolley and the political action committee's attorney to work out the issue. The release stated that Jolley said he could not control what the PAC was doing, and the issue could not be resolved with the PAC itself.
The Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future is a registered PAC, but unlike most PACs in previous years, has not made any donations to candidate committees, according to state Ethics Commission records.
Groups making independent expenditures were once restricted from expressly advocating the election of one candidate over another, but those limitations were struck down in the Citizens United decision.
At least three groups could be confirmed at press time as making independent expenditures in the SD 41 race. Those groups include the Coalition for Oklahoma’s Future, the Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists and the State Chamber of Oklahoma.
According to Ethics Commission disclosure forms, independent expenditures by the Oklahoma Society of Anesthesiologists and the coalition group purchased mailers in favor of Jolley. The State Chamber confirmed its mailings were paid for directly, not by its PAC, citing the Citizens United decision. Chamber officials said they were involved in six legislative races.
The coalition is involved in campaigning for Sen. Brian Crain, R-Tulsa; Rep. Glen Mulready, R-Tulsa; Rep. Marian Cooksey, R-Edmond; Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada; and Rep. Elise Hall, R-Oklahoma City. The Jolley/Blair primary race received the most spending ($97, 200), and Crain’s competitive primary race received the second most ($55,235.64).
The PAC received $50,000 donations apiece from Williams Co., Flintco, Rooney Holdings, Chesapeake Energy, the Chickasaw Nation, and $25,000 from both Continental Resources, and Clay Bennett, Dorchester Capital head and majority Oklahoma City Thunder owner.
Xavier Neira, chairman of the coalition, said the group was formed by a group of private individuals, mostly executives and business owners to support economic development in Oklahoma City and the state. He said coalition members were concerned about what they saw as misinformation about legislators they believe to be pro-business and pro-higher education.
“We felt there was a need to continue all the growth we have seen in Oklahoma City to maintain its current pace. We’re outpacing economic development in a number of states and cities,” he said. “We felt it important to support those candidates that understand the value of economic development and, more importantly, higher education, which gives us a prepared workforce to continue that growth.”
Blair, on the other hand, said he felt the outside groups’ efforts in the race shows the need for the legislation that would allow for further disclosure of their finances.
“It is a shame when a man who has invested 49 years in his hometown, 25 years as a small businessman and 11 years as a minister — all the while establishing an impeccable reputation in the community, and now trying to serve his community through accepting the public trust — is viciously and unjustly attacked." Blair said. "If a PAC can do this to me, then there is no limit to what a PAC can do to any candidate."
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