Alumna Sheila Krumholz tracks the big money that fuels our elections.
Americans across the political spectrum agree: The outsize influence of money in U.S. politics is a kind of plague. That’s borne out in numerous surveys, including a recent bipartisan poll by the Democracy Project, whose founders include former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Joe Biden. The survey found that 68 percent of voters believe democracy is growing weaker, with “big money in politics” tying racism and discrimination for top culprits.
University of Minnesota alumna Sheila Krumholz (B.A. ’88), executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C., uses the same metaphor—and her organization is working night and day to shine a light on the ever-mutating disease so journalists and policymakers can treat it.
The center aims to provide voters, elected officials, and media outlets with access to clear and unbiased information about money’s role in politics and policy. “We are scientists, tracking the pathogens through the body politic,” Krumholz says. “When you follow the money, it’s like injecting dye into the bloodstream.” It’s not a simple task, she adds, because the “paths keep changing. So many paths are taken to game the system.”
Krumholz, who grew up in Owatonna, Minnesota, was a freshly minted U grad with majors in international relations and Spanish and a minor in political science when she arrived in D.C. She began as associate editor of the very first issue of OpenSecrets, the group’s flagship publication, later moving to research director. “When I was hired in 1989, there were four employees; I was the fifth,” Krumholz recalls. “We now have 18 employees—and also several interns, who are really important to our work.
“That’s not meteoric growth, by any means, but I’ve learned as executive director that I’d rather be nimble and small than to balloon to a size that’s difficult to sustain over time.” The center is not in the business of advocating particular policy solutions, Krumholz explains. “We don’t have a horse in the race; we’re not trying to take sides. There needs to be a just-the-facts organization that puts the information out there and lets the chips fall where they may.
“The press can’t do their job, and the voters can’t do theirs, if they don’t have access to the information they need to defend their own interests. What we’re advocating is transparency—and we want to be a trusted source no matter what your ideological perspective is.”
The organization’s research has been used and praised by journalists and media outlets across the country, from Dan Rather to George Will, from the Economist to the Columbia Journalism Review. Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the U’s Humphrey School, says the importance of OpenSecrets.org to preserving American democracy can’t be overstated. “People can think of American democracy as a battle of candidates and voters,” he says. “But the real story is of big wealthy donors. The checkbook is challenging the voters. . . . We live in the politics of big money, and OpenSecrets is the portal into that world. Without them we’d be flying blind.”
Attempts to reform campaign finance over the years have invariably prompted lobbyists and political operatives to invent new and craftier workarounds, Krumholz says. “It’s kind of two steps forward, one step back. We’re always trying to play catchup to the new innovations around money in politics,” she explains. “New ways to hide the money, new ways to get around the limits on [campaign] donations, new ways to get around the limits on how the money can be used. The outrage, of course, is not what’s illegal; it’s what’s perfectly legal, perfectly allowable.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling—which held that, under the First Amendment, the government can’t restrict “independent” electioneering communications expenditures by corporations, unions, nonprofits, and other associations—increased the scope and difficulty of the center’s work. “We now have both unlimited spending and secret sources,” Krumholz says, so discovering who’s buying access and influence from whom is more challenging than ever.
Heading into the midterms in November, Krumholz paints a depressing—but not hopeless—picture. “For those who care about money in politics, the bad news is there’s going to be record-setting spending aimed at this election,” she says. “We say that every cycle, and it’s always true.” But she takes heart in the stories of grassroots candidates who, working hard on the ground and earning massive numbers of small, individual donations, manage to prevail despite a broken and Byzantine system.
“People should know that however hopeless it seems, in the end, who is pulling the lever on Election Day? Voters.” According to Krumholz, “If voters understand their power, their potential to organize, money can still lose.”
Susan Maas is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor. She is also Minnesota Alumni’s copy editor.