A Cheyenne-based libertarian advocacy group is expanding to the national political scene, hoping to influence campaign finance laws in other states.
The Wyoming Liberty Group has started a project called the Pillar of Law Institute. It will fight what it believes are restrictive campaign finance laws for candidates to raise money to run for office, which it characterizes as a free speech issue.
But Larry Noble of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, who supports some restrictions to election laws, said equating money with the First Amendment is erroneous. The institute is part of a growing group of wealthy people who want to spend more money to influence elections, Noble said.
The Pillar of Law Institute's focus will be litigation and communication, said Steve Klein, a Liberty Group employee who has moved to Alexandria, Virginia, for the institute, but will continue to commute to Wyoming when necessary for the Liberty Group.
The Liberty Group educates the public, lobbies the Wyoming Legislature and pursues litigation. It has entered cases for education and civil asset forfeiture reform, opposition to the Affordable Care Act and government incentives for businesses, and against campaign finance restrictions.
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“Wyoming Liberty Group, since founding its 2008, has had a really strong focus on free speech,” Klein said. “That’s perhaps the only thing that we do that’s not confined just to Wyoming. Our outreach there was nationwide with litigation in Texas and Wisconsin, and of course having some Wyoming cases as well.”
The Liberty Group submitted friend of court briefs in a Texas case involving former U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay when he was charged and ultimately cleared of improperly funneling money to Texas House candidates. Klein said his organization was the only to note First Amendment issues in the case, which the court considered in its decision.
In Wyoming, Klein said, the Liberty Group had in 2014 three of its biggest campaign finance successes in federal court. The state’s laws are not as problematic as other state campaign finance laws, he said.
But, he said, that could change if federal election rules get more restrictive.
The Wyoming Liberty Group was founded by Susan Gore, whose older brother Robert Gore invented Gore-Tex weatherproof fabric, and who is involved the family company, W.L. Gore and Associates. Gore will remain in Cheyenne, Klein said.
Klein said he is not privy to how the Pillar of Law Institute is funded. The institute accepts donations. Gore is the director and has been generous, he said.
Noble, of the Campaign Legal Center, said, “There have been other groups like this. These are groups funded by wealthy individuals, sometimes corporations.”
Wiping out campaign finance restrictions can make elections expensive and can prohibit most Americans from contributing anything significant to an election.
“Really, what it’s about is ensuring the ability of the wealthiest to influence elections,” he said.
Elections are becoming more expensive in the United States, in part because of laws that favor the wealthy, Noble said.
“The reality is very few people in this country are capable of giving any money in campaigns,” he said.
But Klein argued when states restrict campaign finance, middle class people are unable to run a successful campaign and get their message out against wealthy candidates who can self-fund. That’s why he characterizes it as a free speech issue, he said.
People who give to an organization such as the Sierra Club or a political candidate are also making a statement, which is free speech, he said.
Klein doesn’t see lifting restrictions as giving wealthy people more access to politicians.
“In Wyoming, for example, to pretend we don’t have responsive legislators is just ridiculous,” he said. “Now, certainly at the federal level, what’s called access is going to take a lot of work to get it. No doubt. If you’re from a state like California, good luck getting a meeting with your senator. That’s just a numbers game, millions upon millions of people.”
The law cannot address the work it takes to get access, Klein said. A millionaire can start an organization, hire people and try to accomplish political goals, but a group of less wealthy people can pool money and organize, too.
“That’s the whole point of unions,” he said. “At least at the outset, that’s exactly where the labor movement came from.”
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock.