Perfect weather in recent days is a reminder of fall's beauty.
But the season's ugliness — at least during election years — will soon arrive, as negative campaign ads clutter TV, radio, social media and mailboxes.
It's bad enough when this denigration of democracy comes from candidates who "approve this message." But it's especially vexing when it's from opaque organizations with benign names like the American Tradition Partnership, a group that plays prominently in "Dark Money," which debuted Friday at the Lagoon Cinemay theater in Minneapolis.
It's a documentary. But it plays like a horror film, with the villain shadowy campaign cash that deepens political and social divisions via inflammatory ads.
The victims? Voters, and maybe even democracy itself.
"I hope that people are able to see a microcosm of how anonymous money and politics works," said Kimberly Reed, who directed and produced "Dark Money." The microcosm is Big Sky Country, as Reed returns to her native Montana to chronicle how her state suffered from and fought back against dark money's insidious impact.
Reed hopes her film is more than just a "good tale" but also offers a "sense of hope." And, she added, "if you're lucky enough to have a strong watchdog press that is paying attention to these issues as well, then you can get to the bottom of them, and I hope that people are inspired by the example of what happened in Montana because that can be replicated in other states."
Montana's fight to reclaim its admirable legacy of curbing corporate influence in politics was bipartisan. "That's the silver lining," said Paul Seamus Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, a nonpartisan organization advocating for cleaner politics. Ryan, who makes a brief appearance in "Dark Money," was quick to add, however, that "the non-silver lining, the ongoing problem with dark money for the nation as a whole, is that by and large neither state legislatures around the country nor Congress have addressed and remedied the problem of dark money."
The bipartisanship that helped make Montana an exception was in part because the targets of some sick attack ads (including one invoking serial killer John Wayne Gacy) were Republicans deemed too moderate by other Republicans who were aligned with business interests trying to influence legislation in theresource-rich state.
"I would have gone to great lengths to make the story as bipartisan as it could be," said Reed. "But it just so happens that the way the story unfolded in Montana was that it really started with Republicans attacking Republicans with dark money and using that as their weapon."
So some of the targeted Republicans, along with many Democratic allies, fought back in a manner that could be a model in Minnesota and the rest of the nation.
"It's very common for campaign finance reformers to beat up Republicans and criticize Republicans for their lack of action, lack of reform, but the truth of the matter is Democrats have been just as bad," Ryan said. When reforms do become law, he added, Democratic Party lawyers "join hands" with Republican lawyers to sue the government.
Ryan said major political players have failed to deliver "what the Supreme Court assumed or promised the American people would have, which is transparency about money and elections."
Transparency was the watchword from those backing the Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United ruling, but so far Congress has failed to create more accountability. Short of legislative action, it's up to groups like Common Cause and the "strong, watchdog press" that Reed mentioned to shed light on this dark-money era.
The film's watchdog was more lone wolf. In fact, that reporter, John Adams, loses his job, lives out of his truck for a bit and has to start his own website to continue reporting a story that ended in a conviction of a legislator and exposure of who was backing him.
"It was also really important for me to tell the story about what was happening to [Adams] as a journalist," said Reed. "Because what he was going through was clearly emblematic of what was going on in the rest of the country in regard to the newspaper industry and journalism in general."
It shouldn't take such extreme measures to protect our precious democracy. We should collectively care about it and demand reform. It isn't likely to come from the courts. Indeed, Judge Brett Kavanaugh may join a majority for banning contribution and spending limits altogether if he's confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice. Congress seems reluctant, too.
This doesn't mean legal and legislative efforts should cease. But beyond that there must be more of a moral and ethical appeal. Voters across the political spectrum should simply ask: Why is it acceptable for politicians — elected to represent us — to accept dark or even direct support from outside groups that are clearly intent on influencing — or owning — their votes? Republican and Democratic candidates should make refusing such funding a virtue.
While it's true that Citizens United may be legally and politically unassailable, united citizens prioritizing this fundamental issue of democracy could make a profound difference.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.