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New campaign rules play out in north country

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In a storefront on Court Street, just down the block from Matthew A. Doheny’s campaign office, sits an organization called the American Action Network.

The office is unassuming, the name relatively generic. But inside, volunteers are waging politics in a way that hasn’t been possible in prior elections, thanks to federal court decisions in the past two years that have freed corporate and union involvement while also making much of it unavailable for public scrutiny.

“It’s in very early stages and is a long-term effort to create a real network in New York so we have the capability to mobilize activists and advocates on key legislative priorities in areas across the country,” Brook Hougesen, a spokeswoman for the American Action Network, wrote in an email message. “Right now we’re focused on educating area constituents on the importance of avoiding the fiscal cliff.”

The American Action Network is just one of several organizations that have gotten involved in the north country’s congressional election. And while the main candidates in the race being targeted — Mr. Doheny, a Republican of Watertown, and Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh — disagree on the spirit of the court decisions, neither is in a hurry to change much about them.

All of this is possible because of a 2010 Supreme Court decision often referred to as Citizens United, and a few other lower federal court decisions. In a nutshell, the decisions eliminated limits on donations to certain types of political groups, and allowed corporate and union contributions to 501(c) organizations such as the American Action Network.

While it can get involved in some ancillary political activities, that is not the network’s main thrust, although the issues it advocates for align with Mr. Doheny.

The American Action Network, as a 501(c)4 organization, cannot directly support or oppose a candidate, while the Congressional Leadership Fund — a super Political Action Committee that is the network’s sister organization — can. Instead, the network focuses on educational and political outreach, like organizing phone banks, registering voters, planning events and recruiting volunteers.

The AAN’s effort in Watertown is led by Jeremiah J. Maxon, a Jefferson County Republican Party Committee member.

Right now, corporations and unions don’t have to reveal their donations to the 501(c) organizations. Congress could pass a law to change that. But it would have to do so without the help of the next congressman from the north country.

Mr. Doheny said in a questionnaire to the League of Women Voters in St. Lawrence County that he would have voted against the DISCLOSE Act, citing the chilling effect it could have on the First Amendment. The acronym stands for Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections. Mr. Owens voted against the DISCLOSE Act for the same reason.

Mr. Owens said in an interview he thinks some 501(c) organizations should have to report their donors, but that groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association should not have to do so, under the rationale that everyone already knows who supports those groups.

It’s the unknown groups that ought to have to disclose, Mr. Owens said. The Federal Elections Commission could decide what groups are well-known enough not to have to disclose their donors, Mr. Owens said.

Congress could, of course, pass a constitutional amendment to completely undo the Citizens United decision, and not just the disclosure part. But that appears extremely unlikely, given the lengthy process required to amend the Constitution, and given the fact that it’s the First Amendment that would have to be changed.

Mr. Owens said he was concerned about the effects of money in politics that Citizens United and other court decisions have wrought. And he said the solution is voluntary public financing of campaigns. Critics — Mr. Doheny, for example — say taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for politics. Mr. Owens takes the long view.

“I think that if we had public financing, ultimately, it would be cheaper for America, because you would not be spending a couple of billion dollars on the 2012 elections,” Mr. Owens said. “That money is coming out of the economy, and is not going to productive uses.”

In the current system, which is not supported by public financing, Mr. Owens has raised more money than Mr. Doheny — at least so far. Mr. Doheny, a financial portfolio manager who has the wherewithal to spend millions on his own campaign, has signaled a willingness to do so.

As part of the Fair Elections Act, which Mr. Owens said he supports, candidates who face a self-funding opponent would receive $1 in public funds for every $5 in small-dollar donations they receive.

Mr. Owens also has put his own money into his campaign, but far less — $29,000 — than Mr. Doheny, who spent $2.3 million on his unsuccessful 2010 race.

Mr. Doheny, meanwhile, said he agrees with the spirit of the Citizens United decision.

“Citizens United simply says speech is speech, so let’s try to make sure the regulation is as small and as specific as possible,” Mr. Doheny said. “It is the First Amendment.”

Mr. Doheny’s campaign hasn’t been as frequent a target of the new political groups as Mr. Owens.

For example, the Congressional Leadership Fund launched automated calls to north country residents assailing Mr. Owens for a perceived failure to create jobs.

But the House Majority PAC, the major Democratic super PAC, which gets much of its funding from unions, has targeted Mr. Doheny in an Internet feature.

Even Mr. Doheny acknowledges his campaign probably benefits from the new campaign laws.

“Hopefully on Nov. 6, we’ll be proven to be the beneficiary of all of that,” he said.

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