FEC Nominee Sullivan Set for a Senate Grilling

Posted June 9, 2009 at 6:21pm

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday will take up the nomination of labor lawyer John Sullivan, a Democratic-picked nominee for a seat on the Federal Election Commission.

Sullivan, a campaign finance lawyer at the Service Employees International Union, would replace Ellen Weintraub on the six-member elections regulator.

If confirmed, Sullivan’s move to E Street also likely would be a major win for unions, while perhaps straining the White House’s ties with the fractured campaign finance reform community.

Unlike the Campaign Legal Center, which has criticized Sullivan for what it calls his efforts to deregulate campaign finance laws, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer said his group is not taking a position on Sullivan’s nomination.

He did, however, call the agency an “unmitigated disaster— and wrote in an e-mail that “it is essential to fundamentally overhaul the FEC, including its appointment process, in order to replace a failed agency with a real campaign finance enforcement agency.—

On the eve of Sullivan’s hearing, Wertheimer also suggested that the White House is continuing a troubling tradition of setting aside an FEC seat for organized labor, a practice that appears to go back 30-plus years.

“We do not believe that FEC Commissioners should be chosen and sent to the Commission to represent congressional incumbents, party officials or interest groups as has repeatedly happened in the past,— Wertheimer wrote.

“The statutory mission of the FEC Commissioners is to represent the public in properly administering and enforcing the campaign finance laws,— Wertheimer added.

Brad Smith, a former Republican FEC commissioner, agreed that Sullivan’s nomination could be the next chapter in the informal understanding that a union sympathizer should sit on the commission.

Going back to Commissioner Tom Harris, a labor lawyer who served from 1975 to 1986, Smith said, “historically the labor movement has had a seat on the commission.—

Harris was replaced by his assistant, Scott Thomas, who sat on the commission until 2006. Thomas’ labor community “successor— is considered to be former labor lawyer Robert Lenhard, who was at the panel from 2006 to 2007.

Smith also said that Sullivan’s nomination means “Democrats are thinking about the 2010 election and labor’s role— in the mid-terms.

And while the White House sided with the reform movement earlier this year by cracking down on lobbyists, “this is practical politics,— Smith said, and Democrats know where their bread is buttered.

“Labor is very, very important to [Democrats], and they want them in a position to say, Here’s what works and doesn’t work,— Smith said. “When it comes to getting out votes and doing advocacy, that’s what the unions do, not what the reformers do.—

Lenhard disagreed with Smith’s analysis of the new FEC nomination. The Democratic lawyer, who worked on President Barack Obama’s transition team, said there is an element of pragmatism in naming Sullivan — but it’s all about replacing Weintraub with someone who knows election laws well.

“Sullivan brings two central qualities to the FEC: he has enormous experience in how the law works in practice; and he has a lot of experience in pushing positive reform of how elections and voting are conducted,— Lenhard wrote in an e-mail.

“I think those experiences weighed more heavily in the balance than who he did the work for.—

“This is an administration that has mixed idealism with a practical sense of how to get things done,— Lenhard added. “Sullivan fits that mold.—

AFL-CIO lawyer Laurence Gold, who practices at Lichtman, Trister & Ross, also disagreed that there is a conspiracy afoot. Gold has known Sullivan for two decades, calling him a “very smart and careful lawyer who believes in the rights of people to participate in the political process, and he believes there have to be rules to make sure elections are fair and free of corruption.—

“There is no labor seat there and he’s not a union representative any more than Don McGahn is a Republican Party representative,— Gold said. “My view is that it’s really valuable to have commissioners who have represented organizations and groups that deal with the Federal Election Campaign Act day in and day out, whether it’s unions, other nonprofit groups or business corporations.—

But he added: “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that someone from the labor movement will be one of the six commissioners but I do look at it a little more broadly: He’s someone who has represented membership organizations in dealing with the laws.—

Michael Toner, a former Republican commissioner, said Sullivan’s experiences suggest he’s likely to be a “Bob Lenhard type: very steeped in the law and from a labor tradition.— Toner called him a “solid, sharp guy— who could provide “a fresh start— at the agency.

Conservatives, too, may have reasons to smile about Sullivan’s nomination, according to Toner.

“What’s a little counterintuitive about labor union politics is that they sometimes are fairly deregulatory,— he said.