Following the lead of television host Stephen Colbert, chemical engineering sophomore Paul Benefiel is creating a UT chapter of the comedian’s half-serious super political action committee, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.
Texans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, as the PAC will be called, is the first university chapter of Colbert’s PAC, which was created to raise awareness about the increasing influence of super PACs in local, state and national elections, Colbert said. A second chapter has also been created at Duke University, Bloomberg reports.
Benefiel said he pitched the idea of creating a university chapter to the producer of The Colbert Report last fall, and only discovered that he had been given approval to go ahead after seeing Colbert endorse the idea on his show last Thursday.
“I hatched the idea in my government class when Occupy Wall Street was starting, and talking with a few of my friends, I figured that this would be a better way to get the idea of change across,” Benefiel said. “The Colbert PAC had a national message, a figurehead to organize around, and college students naturally love and support him.”
After the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, PACs have been able to become ‘super PACs’ that are allowed to accept unlimited donations to support their chosen candidate.
This decision has allowed a few wealthy individuals and politicians to disproportionately influence elections, Benefiel said.
“We’re going to get out the message that Citizens United has changed the face of American politics in a very bad way,” Benefiel said. “We have to show people how politicians are using and abusing [the decision of] Citizens United.”
Although Colbert announced his blessing for the UT chapter, the two PACs will not be officially tied and will act as independent organizations, said Benefiel, who wants to use the PAC to raise awareness about Texas donors and issues.
Two of the largest political donors in the United States, billionaires Bob Perry and Harold Simmons, both reside in Texas. The two have independently made a total of $110 million in campaign contributions to various candidates and campaigns over the past 10 years, according to documents published by the Austin based nonprofit Texans for Public Justice.
In February alone, the two contributed a total of $3.1 million to Restore Our Future, Mitt Romney’s leading super PAC, according to Federal Election Commission records examined by The Daily Texan. In that same period, Colbert’s PAC raised a total of $219,139 from all donors.
The vast majority of that money came from Perry, who has been the single largest political donor in the United States for the past 10 years, said executive director of TPJ Craig McDonald.
“There’s a lot of concern from people who think democracy should be for all people, who don’t want a few rich individuals buying an election,” McDonald said. “People are outraged by Citizens United, and Stephen Colbert has been one of the most effective voices in bringing to light what’s been happening since the decision.”
Benefiel said he is currently seeking to create a student organization to organize the PAC around, and has already filed with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission. He plans to begin meetings on how to raise and use money by next week.
“It would be in the University’s best interest to permit a student organization, because it shines a spotlight on the campus,” said Benefiel, who is still checking whether it is allowed by UT’s laws to have a student organization affiliated with a PAC. “If not, then we will just find another meeting place.”
Texans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow will also be making rounds to university organizations including the University Democrats, College Republicans and Libertarian Longhorns in the hopes of gathering support, Benefiel said.
“We certainly encourage students who wish to raise awareness about how money influences politics,” said UDems president Huey Fischer. “We look forward to seeing the work that Texans for a Better Tomorrow [has] set out
While he could not speak on behalf of the members of his organization, Fischer said the University Democrats support any group that encourages activism and political awareness among students.
“Transparency in our elections is an integral facet of Democracy that this party will always support,” Fischer said.
In the meantime, Benefiel said he has already gathered the support of up to 40 UT students and Austinites interested in the PAC, including some who have already offered donations and free legal advice.
“Of course, Democrats and their political views lean with getting political money out of politics, but Republican positions don’t support Citizens United either,” Benefiel said. “It creates a market where corporations have to spend their money on campaign finance when they would prefer to spend it on regulation reform. It’s a nonpartisan issue.”
Printed on Wednesday, April 4, 2012 as: Lights, Camera, Political Action: Students begin first university chapter inspired by Colbert's super PAC