Campaign Finance

Mormon Outed by Campaign Finance Laws

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When reason.tv spoke with former FEC head Brad Smith earlier this year, he offered this through-the-looking-glass take on campaign finance requirements:

Imagine if George Bush were to announce here in the fading twilight of his presidency that in order to prevent terrorists from infiltrating American political parties and thus asserting control of American government, we needed to introduce the PATRIOT II Act. And the PATRIOT II Act would require citizens to report to the government their political activities. And the government would keep that in a database, which by the way they would then make available to private individuals like employers or maybe groups that might want to protest outside your home…

You know what, we have that law already, and it's called campaign finance, it's called the Federal Election Campaign Act. Which requires you to report to the government, or requires the campaigns to report to the government people who give them money and the government keeps that in a database, and they make that available, anybody can go online and look that stuff up on the Internet.

Ta Da! Meet Scott Eckern, the Mormon artistic director of the California Musical Theater (take a second to ponder that combo) was forced to resign yesterday after activists mining campaign donations publicized the fact that he had given money to the effort to ban gay marriage in California.

It is, of course, the perfect right of the theater to send him packing for any reason, and I personally think anyone who gives money to oppose gay marriage sucks nuts. 

But the whole episode is pretty unsavory. Eckern, who seems to have a decent relationship with his sister (a lesbian), and good relationships with his theater colleagues (lots of gay), was probably not spewing anti-gay bile at work. If he had been, it's hard to imagine he would have lasted for seven years in his current position.

Instead, Eckern's private, personal donation to a legal political cause he believes in was forced into the public eye by government-mandated disclosure. It seems unlikely that Eckern wanted the donation to be made public—he may not have even known that it would be. Though I hesitate to make this comparison for obvious reasons, Eckern was essentially outed by the state for his privately-held views. 

But wait, The New York Times says "the swift resignation was not met with cheers by those on either side." Whew. At least everyone realizes that this is a forced error, that everyone has been put into a terrible position by forces outside of their control.

Or not. Marc Shaiman, the Tony Award-winning composer, told the Times that the entire episode left him "'deeply troubled' because of the potential for backlash against gays who protested Mr. Eckern's donation." [itals mine]

"It will not help our cause because we will be branded exactly as what we were trying to fight," said Mr. Shaiman, who is gay.

At worst, those who forced out Eckern are guilty of failing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps (as Shaiman can't quite bring himself to admit) a little hypocrisy. Imagine the situation reversed: A small non-profit that focuses on, say, education and happens to be culturally conservative, discovers that an employee has given money to protect gay marriage and fires him.

But the real culprit here is campaign finance laws. Not all political actions should be public actions, and this case illustrates why minorities of all kinds occasionally need privacy to be full participants in political life.