Nicholas Goldberg: Rick Caruso’s Money Shows How Supreme Court Disrupts Elections

I’m so sick of Rick Caruso.

Every time I turn on the TV or watch social media, I find him staring at me. I never “licked” him or retweeted him or clicked to buy one of his tote bags. So why is he chasing me?

But there he is, the mall developer turned mayor, bombarding me – and the rest of Los Angeles, presumably – with one slick ad after another, spreading the usual bromides about cleaning up crime, homelessness and corruption until we’re done. all hear his promises in our sleep.

That’s what you can do when you have a fortune estimated at $4.3 billion: get into the campaign at the last minute and get your message into the minds of voters who didn’t ask for it, in the long tradition of mega-wealthy candidates such as Meg Whitman, Carly Fiorina, Mike Bloomberg, Jon Corzine, Donald Trump and Tom Steyer.

Some people don’t believe such a thing works. But it is often remarkably effective.

Stipple-style portrait illustration of Nicholas Goldberg

Opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.

Caruso had the support of 8% of voters in February, polls showed. Then he spent about $10 million on digital and television advertising and lo and behold, as of last week he has 24% support, putting him neck and neck with the other leading candidate in the June primary, Rep. Karen Bass.

For every vote that went his way, Caruso spent about $153 by my calculation behind the envelope, assuming the polls are correct and turnout is about the same as last time.

It’s not fair. It’s not democratic. The big money disrupts the race and gives special, undeserved advantages to rich candidates.

But that’s our system.

Caruso gets to spend as much of his own huge fortune on his campaign as he wants. All $4.3 billion, if he wants. That’s been the law for nearly half a century since the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 in a case called Buckley vs. valeo.

That decision — which basically stated that wealthy people have a constitutional right to push their way to public office — is less well-known than the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, but it is in many ways the “original sin.” of the court during campaign finances.

It dates back to just after the Watergate scandal. Congress sought to clean up the campaign finance corruption that had helped overthrow President Nixon.

But the bill passed by Congress did not get the approval of the court, which deleted key sections. The judges believed that while it was legal to restrict what donors are allowed to do, contribute to a campaign, as it could pose a real risk of corruption, it is unconstitutional to restrict what candidates are allowed to spend.

Any spending restrictions would violate the candidate’s freedom of speech, the court ruled, as it would limit the “quantity” of speech the candidate could express.

With Buckley vs. Valeo opened the courts for unlimited independent spending while also sending a clear message to super-rich people that they could buy their way to election victory.

The decision made the United States an outlier. We are the only advanced democracy — unlike, say, Canada or most Western European countries — that allows unlimited campaign spending, said Daniel Weiner, co-director of the election and government program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of those countries have robust public funding systems in which taxpayer dollars cover campaign costs.

“Buckley’s decision encompassed a set of First Amendment doctrines that had been used to protect dissenters and the least powerful, and instead used them to guarantee a megaphone for the most powerful interests,” Weiner says.

Buckley creates an uneven playing field. It tends to benefit the wealthy white elites. It helps the established order. It drives up the cost of elections.

In 2020, the total cost of federal elections was nearly $14 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — more than twice as much as the 2016 cycle. According to, more than 90% of candidates who outnumber their opponents win their races. .

Ellen Weintraub, a member of the Federal Election Commission, argues that Buckley backs up the argument. failed limiting spending, she says, is what really limits speech — because all that money being spent outvotes less-funded candidates, denying voters the chance to hear and weigh all the arguments.

Buckley is also forcing less affluent candidates to raise even more money from special interest donors if they hope to compete.

I have nothing to do with Rick Caruso. I have no reason to doubt that he is well-intentioned, intelligent and capable.

But I find it insulting that he can circumvent LA’s public funding system and radically outdo his opponents, many of whom have been campaigning diligently for months.

I admit that I felt a certain satisfaction when voters bag rich candidates like Caruso, as voters in California did to Fiorina, Whitman and Al Checchi.

Buckley’s decision is unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. But let’s keep hoping.

As Canada and other countries have shown, there are ways to write campaign finance laws that allow for a fair and level playing field without harming free speech. That’s because money is not speech, and limiting candidate spending to protect election integrity won’t stop debates, speeches, tweets, rallies or the airing of a reasonable number of ads.

In 1985, Judge Byron White wrote in a dissenting opinion, “The First Amendment protects the right to speak, not to spend.” In 2006, Judge John Paul Stevens wrote, “I am convinced that Buckley’s adherence to spending limits is wrong, and the time has come to undo it.”

Buckley’s decision was wrong when it was written—and still is. Perhaps the full court will eventually realize that.


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