Stephen Colbert

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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

Unhappy with the influence of super political action committees in the 2012 election season, Texans — and especially young people — have turned to satire for political expression.

By January, Texans had raised more money for television comedian Stephen Colbert’s half-serious super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow than Mitt Romney’s leading super PAC in Texas, Restore Our Future, according to Federal Election Commission documents analyzed by the Houston Chronicle.

On his television show, Colbert said he started the PAC to highlight the impact that super PACs would play following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which has allowed PACs to become super PACs that can raise unlimited amounts of money for political campaigns. Colbert’s PAC has since run a number of melodramatic and sometimes nonsensical ads in key primary states that bring attention to the influence of super PACs.

University Democrats president Huey Fischer said he would not be surprised if the $6,716 from Texans was raised mainly by people younger than 40.

“Young people really find a connection with Stephen Colbert because he’s able to throw a light on the corrupt, shameless and often non-transparent nature of politics today,” Fischer said. “There is a definitely a frustration with Citizens United on both sides of the aisle, and I don’t think it’s surprising at all that Stephen Colbert is successful even in Texas.”

Fischer said the University Democrats, which is registered as a PAC and has to report its donations to the Texas Ethics Commission, does not donate money to candidates and spends the money it receives on increasing voter awareness and putting time forward for sponsored campaigns.

“Our members often don’t have the money to contribute to campaigns so we ask them to pitch in their time in the forms of meetings and service,” Fischer said. “We definitely see the money side of politics, but we did our fundraising last semester and we are now spending it on voting information.”

While Colbert’s PAC is still dwarfed by the millions raised by other PACs nationally, it still managed to raise more money than Romney’s PAC within Texas. This may be partially due to Romney’s weak standing among social conservatives in Texas, said University Democrats spokesman Andre Treiber.

College Republicans president Cassandra Wright said Colbert’s success is not strictly a political issue and that Colbert’s PAC poses a problem for American society.

“The fact that Stephen Colbert could raise more money than Mitt Romney isn’t a Republican problem but a problem of the power of the entertainment industry trivializing politics,” Wright said. “I think that people who really care about the issues in today’s election are not going to be enthusiastic when they hear people have been donating millions of dollars to the entertainment industry and making a mockery of the political world.”

The College Republicans do not act as a PAC like the University Democrats and instead focus solely on acting as a student organization to appropriate their manpower, hoping to use their resources to represent a cohesive conservative voice in 2012, Wright said.

“It’s understandable that social conservatives might not be as willing to throw their support behind Romney right now, but I’m sure we will unite to support a Republican candidate,” Wright said. “The Republican party is more about principles than politicians.”

About 1,500 miles away from Austin, political satirists and Comedy Central show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Although the rally took place on the National Mall in Washington D.C., Austinites had a front row seat to the day’s events.

More than 6,000 people of different races, ages and political affiliations came together at the Capitol to watch a satellite projection of the rally and to advocate civility in politics. They carried signs with sayings like “Pro-sanity, not profanity,” “Friends don’t let friends teabag” and “I have a different opinion than you, but you aren’t Hitler.”

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin; State Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin; Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell and City Councilman Mike Martinez spoke at the rally.

“We are rallying for a change in tone, a new process in getting things done,” Watson said. “We want a Texas that aspires, even as it achieves. We want leaders who are more interested in fixing things than fighting them.”

Instead of focusing on the upcoming Nov. 2 elections, the speakers addressed the need for respectful resolution of political conflicts.

“Our political discourse in this country has become a race to the bottom,” Leffingwell said. “We need to be civil, especially when we disagree.”

Local artists such as Dave Madden and Sticks and Stones played on the Capitol’s steps.

The audience watched as Stewart and Colbert presented mock awards for reasonableness and spreading fear and sang a song about how great it is to be an American. Although the rally was lighthearted and fun, it ended on a somber note when Stewart talked about the need for American unity.

“We hear every damn day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it is a shame we can’t work together to get things done,” Stewart said during the speech. “The truth is, we do. We work together to get things done every damn day.”

Dallas native Sandra Richards said she was pleased with Stewart’s critique of the media.

“Jon Stewart made it clear to me that the media does not chose what it covers very well,” Richards said. “Journalists tend to focus on inconsequential things and let important things go by unnoticed. This is unfair to the public who trusts them.”

Austin resident Morgan Cook said he is glad someone is standing up for what should change in politics.

“Although they are comedians, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have a lot of power,” Cook said. “Someone needs to let politicians know that what is going on is not right, and I think they have done a good job of it.”

But he isn’t sure how much good a rally will do, he said.

“A mass amount of change needs to happen for D.C. to become reasonable,” Cook said.