Federal Election Commission

According to the Federal Election Commission and opensecrets.org, five out of eight non-student UT System regents have made contributions of $2,500 — the maximum allowed under Federal Election Commission rules — to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s campaigns for the governorship or presidency. Though these relatively modest sums aren’t enough to warrant cries of cronyism, other much larger contributions to state and national conservative political groups make it clear that raising money for the Republican Party isn’t a bad idea if one aspires to be a regent.

While political donations of all sizes surprise few after the decision reached in Citizens United v. FEC, the extent to which many regents associate with and support like-minded political organizations underscores how the board, which exists to provide leadership for the system’s 15 universities, deliberates and makes decisions that will affect the quality of higher education in the state of Texas. Few, if any, dissenting voices exist to counter the political ambitions of the majority of board members.

One example of board members’ commitment to conservative causes is chairman Gene Powell, Jr.’s assistance in raising $102,475 for Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential run in 2008. The $2,500 campaign contribution limit applies to national political figures as well, so after meeting that limit, Powell worked as a “bundler,” encouraging friends and associates in high places to make contributions to McCain that Powell could bundle and deliver to the campaign in one mega-check.

Board Vice Chairman Paul Foster has made consistent donations in the low thousands to former Republican Sen. John Cornyn and the American Fuels and Petrochemicals Manufacturers Political Action Committee. Additionally, Foster has given $200,000 in the past two years to conservative super-PACs Make Us Great Again, a political action committee supporting Perry, and American Crossroads, the super-PAC formed by Republican strategist Karl Rove that was partly responsible for Republican victories across the Midwest during the 2010 senatorial elections.

Most salient of all, records show that Regent Alex Cranberg gave $2,100 to the group Coloradoans for Rick O’Donnell in 2005. While serving as director of Colorado’s Department of Higher Education, O’Donnell, a Republican, made his second unsuccessful run for the Colorado State Legislature. As evidenced by his campaign contribution, Cranberg, a fellow Coloradoan, knew about O’Donnell and approved of his politics.

In the same month that Gov. Perry appointed Cranberg to the Board of Regents, O’Donnell was hired to serve as a special adviser to the UT System. His employment ended after only a month and a half on the job, likely because of the public outcry against the controversial policies he pushed. He made an impression quickly with his antagonistic attitude toward university research, outspoken advocacy for “efficiency” and questionable connection with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative nonprofit think tank based in Austin.

Regents’ campaign contributions show that O’Donnell’s voice wasn’t the only one championing a right-wing agenda. Though O’Donnell left the Board of Regents before he was able to enact any of the reforms he suggested, his ideas about evaluating UT’s effectiveness solely by quantitative measures such as graduation times continue to dominate the debate about UT’s future. Matt Angle, founder of the Lone Star Project, a federal political action committee that fact checks Texas Republicans, cites such questionable political connections as the consequences of one-party rule.

“They’re politicizing the higher education system,” Angle said. “What it [data on contributions] does is it basically signals to anybody that if you want to serve on the Board of Regents then you need to be politically loyal, not just to Rick Perry but to a very narrow right-wing point of view.”

In an overwhelmingly conservative state, it isn’t shocking that the regents’ political affiliations are also conservative — especially since they are appointed by one of the most conservative governors in the country. We shouldn’t be surprised when the Board of Regents pushes conservative reforms to higher education when its history of political activity makes the writing on the wall so clear.

Chemical engineering sophomore Paul Benefiel is creating a UT chapter of television host Stephen Colbert’s half-serious political action committee, which will be called Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. The PAC is the first university chapter of Colbert’s PAC, which was created to raise awareness about the increasing influence of super PACs.

Photo Credit: Ryan Edwards | Daily Texan Staff

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
to accomplish.”

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