It’s a textbook example of spending to influence an election.
A brand-new organization, “Citizens For Des Moines,” was registered with the Iowa Secretary of State on October 20. Its president, Doug Gross, is a prominent Republican attorney and major donor to city council member Connie Boesen’s mayoral campaign. The group paid to print and send at least two mass mailings attacking Boesen’s main rival in the mayoral race, which reached numerous Des Moines voters less than a week before the November 7 election.
Iowa law requires disclosure of independent expenditures that support or oppose a candidate for office, and requires political action committees to periodically report on their fundraising and spending. But Citizens For Des Moines exploited gaps in the law, so voters will be unable to find out who donated to the group or how much was spent on mail targeting city council member Josh Mandelbaum.
MAILINGS HIGHLIGHT FALSE CLAIMS
The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board enforces Iowa Code chapter 68A, relating to campaign finance, and maintains a publicly accessible database of filings by state and local campaigns or PACs. But Citizens For Des Moines is organized as a 504 nonprofit under a different Iowa code section, so never filed any statement of organization with the campaign regulator or a report on its fundraising and spending. (The Boesen campaign’s pre-election filing indicates that Doug Gross donated $5,000 in April and food worth $425.59 for a July fundraiser.)
Independent expenditure reports are mandatory for groups that spend more than $1,000 for “communication that expressly advocates the nomination, election, or defeat of a clearly identified candidate” that is not coordinated with a candidate or candidate’s committee. The Citizens For Des Moines mailings certainly cost far more than $1,000 to print and send, and could have no conceivable purpose other than trying to defeat Mandelbaum in the mayoral race.
This piece reached many households on November 2. Its central claim is false: the resolution Mandelbaum presented at an October 2020 city council meeting would not raise electric bills, ban gas stoves, or make it harder to heat residents’ homes. It called on the city to update its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, aspiring to be “net-zero” by 2050, and to incorporate those goals in future negotiations with MidAmerican Energy (the area’s monopoly electric utility).
Disclosure: I donated to Mandelbaum’s past campaigns for city council and to his mayoral campaign this year. I’m also an active supporter of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, where Mandelbaum works as a senior attorney and sometimes lobbies for or against legislation. So I know that group has never tried to force Iowans to pay more for gas, electricity, or basic services. On the contrary, the Environmental Law & Policy Center has long advocated for policies that would lower Iowans’ utility bills through better energy efficiency programs and replacing coal-fired power plants with more cost-effective renewable alternatives.
A second mailer, which hit many mailboxes on November 3, reinforced the misleading claims and added a new lie by depicting Mandelbaum as running a “lobbying business” with multiple clients. That’s wrong: unlike lobbyists who represent many interests at the state capitol, Mandelbaum is only registered to lobby for his employer. Moreover, lobbying is not the main focus of that nonprofit’s work in Iowa. And again, nothing in the resolution Mandelbaum presented to the city council three years ago could lead to a ban on gas stoves or automobiles. When I asked the candidate about these allegations, he called them “pretty ridiculous.”
Gross didn’t respond to emails seeking comment on the basis for these allegations and details on Citizens For Des Moines’ spending and fundraising.
The public deserves to know who paid to spread these false messages to voters. Were Citizens For Des Moines donors mainly individuals who had contributed to Boesen’s campaign, like Gross? Were they mainly Republicans, like Gross? Were they people who do business with the city? Investor-owned utilities or corporate-backed groups that sometimes clash with the Environmental Law & Policy Center on matters of public policy?
We may never find out—certainly, we won’t know before Des Moines residents elect a new mayor on November 7.
HOW CITIZENS FOR DES MOINES SKIRTED DISCLOSURE REQUIREMENTS
These hit pieces were undoubtedly designed to influence voters’ choices. So how did Citizens For Des Moines get around registering with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board and filing independent expenditure reports?
As mentioned above, state law requires disclosure of spending on “communication that expressly advocates the nomination, election, or defeat of a clearly identified candidate.” If you look carefully, you will notice the Citizens For Des Moines mailers don’t explicitly tell people not to vote for Mandelbaum. Rather, they urge recipients to “Call Josh Mandelbaum” and “tell him to keep special interests” out of city government.
Many political advocacy organizations registered as nonprofits have used the same trick: spend heavily on advertising targeting a candidate, but avoid “magic words” about voting so you can claim the material is not electioneering. I was not surprised when Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board executive director Zach Goodrich confirmed in response to my inquiry, “You’re correct that because this doesn’t contain express advocacy (vote no, don’t let him win, etc.) it doesn’t trigger the requirement to file with our office. As such, they have filed no reports with our office.”
1) We’ve seen many campaign materials this cycle from across the state with no attribution statement on them – both for materials that do and don’t expressly advocate – so I will say that I’m appreciative that Citizens For Des Moines included an attribution statement here even though they legally weren’t required to. It’s far from full disclosure but it’s better than nothing.
2) Even though they went above the legal requirements to say what group is responsible for this mailer, they could do more. While it would be entirely voluntary, I think it would be beneficial for the public’s trust in the campaign process for groups like this to file with our office and disclose the source of their funding. Even though there isn’t express advocacy, materials such as this are obviously persuasive and designed to influence the outcome of an election. If I’m standing in the town square with a bullhorn trying to persuade you to vote a certain way I’m not going to cover up my face while I do it.
Voluntary disclosure would never happen, because this sort of advertising campaign is structured to ensure no one can be held accountable for spreading false or misleading attacks.
Particularly in a race like this one, where Mandelbaum’s main competitor claims to be running an exclusively positive campaign.
BOESEN DISTANCED HERSELF FROM ATTACKS
Boesen and Mandelbaum are the front-runners among the four candidates running for mayor in Iowa’s largest city. As of November 2, Boesen’s campaign had raised nearly $400,000 and spent just under $343,000 this year, while Mandelbaum’s campaign had raised about $281,000 and spent around $353,000. Each candidate has invested in television advertising: nearly $160,000 for Boesen and about $140,000 for Mandelbaum.
When I asked Boesen’s campaign whether the candidate would condemn the Citizens For Des Moines mailings and call on the group to disclose its donors and expenditures, staff referred me to Boesen’s November 4 Facebook post:
I’m proud that we’ve run a positive campaign focused on my vision for a stronger Des Moines – even with unprecedented spending to mislead voters about where I stand. I haven’t and will not run negative ads or attack my opponents in this race, and I don’t condone any groups or individuals who resort to this. Voters deserve better and I’m proud of the positive campaign we’ve run.
One of Boesen’s top donors is heading this front group, which has made demonstrably false claims about her opponent. She says she doesn’t “condone” negative ads, but did not demand that the group trying to get her elected reveal its finances.
More broadly, it’s comical and cynical for Boesen to say she’s run a “positive campaign” when she and her supporters have repeatedly attacked Mandelbaum in press releases, social media posts, and fundraising emails. They’re upset over a campaign mailing that said Mandelbaum was “the only candidate for Mayor who stood up when it counted” after the Iowa legislature attacked women’s health care, and a tv ad that said Mandelbaum “was the one candidate for mayor to act, proposing new reproductive health protections for Des Moines women,” and “was the only candidate who voted to safeguard access to abortion.”
Boesen has characterized those statements as a false attack because she supports abortion rights. But no one has claimed she isn’t nominally pro-choice. The ads referred to a specific policy, which she voted against considering.
Last year, Mandelbaum proposed a resolution with provisions on helping city employees “access health care services that become inaccessible in state,” while discouraging investigations of abortions and the use of city funds to “conduct surveillance or collect information” to determine whether someone had an abortion. Boesen maintained that the proposal went beyond the city’s authority.
That seems like a good faith disagreement on how local governments should respond to state efforts to ban abortion. Yet Boesen has accused Mandelbaum of lying when he highlighted the difference between how the candidates approached this issue.
Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa confirmed in a November 3 statement:
Unfortunately, as the mayoral election nears its final days, the events surrounding a City Council resolution in support of bodily autonomy introduced in October 2022 by Councilmember Josh Mandelbaum have been misrepresented. Mandelbaum worked in close coordination with Planned Parenthood Advocates of Iowa to update a proposed resolution to reflect meaningful policy to lawfully protect the reproductive freedoms of Des Moines residents and city staff. When the resolution was brought before the Council for consideration, Councilmember Connie Boesen was the second to a motion by Councilman Joe Gatto to dismiss the resolution without discussion. This vote shut down the effort to act within the city’s authority to protect abortion rights and is a matter of public record.
When it comes to protecting our freedoms, every level of government matters. It’s not enough to wait on action from the very state government that continually violates Iowans’ freedoms. Municipal governments ought to use any means available to defend the rights of their residents and staff. In this moment, no politician who calls themselves pro-choice gets a pass on protecting bodily autonomy. We appreciate the proactive leadership demonstrated through this resolution and remain disappointed that a majority of the Council chose not to support the rights of their constituents when presented the opportunity to do so.
We can debate the merits or practicality of this resolution. But whatever your opinion on the policy, it’s accurate to say Mandelbaum was for it, and Boesen was against it.
Equally important: everyone can see that Mandelbaum’s campaign paid to inform area voters about the issue, and anyone can look up where those campaign funds came from.
In contrast, only a small circle of people know who paid for the lies Citizens For Des Moines delivered to thousands of households, less than a week before election day.
UPDATE: Boesen won the mayoral race by 14,507 votes to 13,784 (48.2 percent to 45.8 percent).
Lee Rood wrote a deep dive on the dark money group for the Des Moines Register, and uncovered some important details. Boesen told Rood “her campaign polled voters in October, and the results, which she never shared with Gross, showed her in the lead.” But that wasn’t how Gross perceived the state of play.
When Gross and Tom Henderson, former chairman of Polk County’s Democratic Party, faced a full house for an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute question-and-answer discussion at the Harkin Institute in Des Moines, Mary Riche, a supporter of Mandelbaum’s, said people pressed Gross to answer questions about the fliers and his tactics.
Gross, she said, told the crowd he did what he did because Mandelbaum was winning. “I almost fell out of my chair,” she said.
Rood also uncovered connections between Boesen’s campaign staff and one of the incorporators of Citizens for Des Moines.
Another man listed as an incorporator was Alejandro Verdin, who had only a post office box listed for an address on the nonprofit incorporation papers. Boesen said she’d never heard of him.
But the man she hired to take over her campaign in September, Sam Roecker, confirmed in a phone call Monday that he had worked with Verdin, who earlier this year was a campaign manager for the liberal Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz. Protasiewicz was elected this spring in the most expensive Supreme Court race in U.S. history.
Roecker was her campaign spokesperson, according to a recent article in Politico. Another top aide for the justice was Ben Nuckels, whose Democratic media consulting business also worked for Boesen’s campaign, according to campaign finance documents.
Verdin, reached briefly Monday afternoon, said that no one had hired him in Iowa and that he would call back later in the day, but he had not by press time.