Krumholz makes sure that every publicly available financial detail of businesses’ influence on elections, legislation and policy is just a few computer clicks away.
Born and raised in Owatonna, Minn., and educated at the University of Minnesota, Krumholz has been executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), better known as OpenSecrets.org, since 2006. Many consider the website the country’s best at connecting the dots between money and politics.
Reporters regularly interview Krumholz. The media cite her organization in thousands of stories each year. And Web traffic shows that businesses themselves go to the site to see whom other companies are trying to influence.
“They are able to highlight spending trends in a way that a nonpartisan government agency cannot,” said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Trevor Potter. They “take data and make it usable and intelligible. They translate it into the language of political discourse.”
Not everyone sees this as a good thing. The Heritage Foundation, a free-market think tank, maintains that groups like CRP might stifle the free speech of those who want to give to political causes, but fear personal and professional attacks if their preferences become public.
“When you talk about ‘dark money’ as they do on her website, you make things that are perfectly legal and ethical seem illegal and not ethical,” said John Von Kannon, a Heritage vice president. “That’s a reason not to give.”
Von Kannon says corporations should enjoy the same rights as individuals and that giving to political campaigns as well as independent spending groups should be unlimited. He agrees with disclosing campaign contributions. But revealing donors to political-issues groups can become “a form of intimidation.”
Krumholz, who studied international relations and minored in political science at the U, swears that corporations are not the “enemy any more than unions or ideological organizations.” But “in certain circumstances they can gain undue influence based upon the money they throw around Washington.”
As she sees it, her mission is to provide information to try to level the playing field.
“If they have the possibility of being harmed or hurt by federal regulation or action, most corporations of a certain size are active and firing on all pistons with campaign contributions, lobbying, using the revolving door [that provides lucrative private-sector jobs to ex-politicians] or developing cordial relationships over time so that they can call in their chits and gain access when it is needed,” Krumholz said.
“It is important for those of us who are not at the table to make sure we are not on the menu.”
Books lying around her cluttered office include “Outside Money,” “The Dollar Power of PACs on Congress” and “Washington Babylon.” A bumper sticker affixed to one of many black metal filing cabinets reads, “Who’s paying for this election?”
With a staff full of computer geeks, journalists and the occasional ex-government official, the Center for Responsive Politics is a nonprofit organization funded by grants — dutifully listed on the website — and some private purchases of customized data. CRP gathers information from the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the Internal Revenue Service, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, then blends it in ways that expose otherwise opaque relationships between corporate or personal wealth and political power.
Krumholz sums up her job simply: She wants CRP to provide “a road map” to how policy gets made.
Adam Skaggs, director of the Money in Politics Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, says CRP performs an “invaluable” service. “The larger corporations in our country control extensive sums and therefore have a disproportionate ability to influence policy and politicians,” Skaggs said.
The way Krumholz’s group measures corporate influence causes Jim Bopp some heartburn. Bopp is the Indiana lawyer who filed the now-famous Citizens United suit that led the U.S. Supreme Court to allow unlimited corporate and union contributions to so-called “independent” political spending groups that often run attack ads.
People who work for Krumholz “are broadly relied upon because of their accuracy,” Bopp acknowledged. But CRP’s practice of grouping corporate political giving with the donations of individual employees “implies that the institution is making the contribution,” Bopp said. “That’s inherently misleading.”
Making data user-friendly is as important as combining it in unique ways. On OpenSecrets.org, even a digital neophyte can determine that St. Paul-based Hubbard Broadcasting Inc. gave $100,000 to Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC in 2012 or that 3M spent nearly $2.7 million lobbying federal politicians and regulators in the first six months of 2013.
Krumholz says this exercise in free speech is the antidote to free spending. “We need to pay attention to what our representatives are doing in our name and to hold their feet to the fire if we think they’re not honoring our trust,” she said.
Krumholz is 48 and married with two children. She grew up in a nonpolitical family, the second-youngest of eight children.
“The notable thing about her was her idealism,” said her oldest sibling, Mary Clifford. “It wasn’t a starry-eyed idealism. She still believes the work she does can foster accountability.”
Nels Thompson, who taught Krumholz biology at Owatonna High School, called her a leader by example. To be sure, her style is laid-back. A recent staff meeting was more conversation than commands, but the discussion made clear that her team dissects political finances like investment bankers.
While linking contributions to candidates, opensecrets.org also offers a “personal finances” Web page so the public can peruse stock holdings and estimated net worth of members of Congress and their spouses. Here is where people could see that Rep. Erik Paulsen of Minnesota owned Medtronic stock as he led efforts to repeal a medical-device tax that the company strongly opposed. After newspapers published the information, Paulsen sold his Medtronic shares.
In 2012, Krumholz’s work attracted the attention of TV comedian Stephen Colbert. Colbert formed his own super PAC in 2012 and used it to lampoon loopholes in campaign fundraising, but he also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. When Colbert dissolved his super PAC early in 2013, he gave his money to three groups. The Center for Responsive Politics got $136,000.
“There are people who say disclosure doesn’t do us any good because once we discover what’s being spent, nothing happens,” said the FEC’s Potter, Colbert’s legal adviser. But if political spending remains secret, “we can’t even have that conversation.”
Skaggs credits Krumholz and her colleagues not only with starting the conversation, but with changing the dialogue.
“If you turn the clock back even five or 10 years and ask the average member of the public what they think of campaign finance reform, their eyes would probably glaze over,” he said. “Today, if you ask wide swaths of the American people what they think about money in politics, I think they’re going to have a lot of strong feelings.”