- Associated Press - Sunday, February 2, 2014

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Now that it’s legal for special interest groups to raise and spend unlimited amounts of cash on elections, candidates for Rhode Island governor are looking for ways to rein in their political influence.

The three Democratic candidates say they want to find a way to keep super PACs out of an already contentious and expensive race. But while various proposals have been suggested, the sides have yet to agree on a deal.

“There are two solutions to this problem: Amend the U.S. Constitution - which isn’t very likely and certainly won’t happen before November - or encourage the candidates to self-police these third-party groups,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, which is working with the campaigns on a pledge.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras has proposed a super PAC pledge modeled on one used in last year’s U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, which would require a candidate to donate money to a charity of their opponent’s choice when an outside organization attacks their opponent. Treasurer Gina Raimondo has said she wants to prohibit spending by any independent group. Clay Pell has said his campaign won’t accept money from PACs or Statehouse lobbyists.

Super PACs are essentially political action committees that are free to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money. Though they are prohibited from coordinating their activities with a campaign, they can nonetheless deliver a potent advantage through ads that support one candidate or trash another.

Similar pledges have been used in other races, including most notably the U.S. Senate race between Republican Scott Brown and Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The two candidates struck the deal after outside groups on both sides launched early attack ads. Taveras‘ proposal is modeled directly on the Brown-Warren pledge.

“Rhode Island can set an example for keeping Wall Street and special interests from using super PACs as a backdoor to buying their own state government,” Taveras said in a statement.

Raimondo campaign manager Eric Hyers said the Citizens United decision has proven to be a “disaster,” but Taveras‘ pledge might not go far enough. Raimondo favors a complete ban on any outside spending.

“We’re calling for a people’s pledge that is more than a gimmick or a campaign slogan but that actually ensures that third-party shadowy money stays out of this race,” Hyers said.

One outside group, American LeadHERship, has already waded into the race on Raimondo’s behalf. The group makes it clear on its website that it is not authorized by any candidate, but it praises Raimondo while attacking Taveras and incumbent Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has opted not to seek a second term.

Nonetheless, a strong deal to limit the support of outside groups may be more likely to hurt Taveras, who significantly trails Raimondo in campaign fundraising. Raimondo reported Friday that she has $2.5 million on hand, compared to just over $1 million for Taveras.

“She wouldn’t have to be as reliant on PAC money as Taveras,” said Wendy Schiller, political science professor at Brown University. “She doesn’t need that money.”

Pell reported Friday that he had $1.1 million on hand, including more than $1 million that he loaned the campaign. Pell, the grandson of the late U.S. Sen. Claiborne Pell, is married to Olympic figure skater Michelle Kwan.

Pell’s campaign wants Marion to facilitate negotiations on a super PAC pledge among the three campaigns. He’s already said he won’t accept contributions from PACs or Statehouse lobbyists, even though some of those at his announcement rally - including his campaign spokesman - have worked as lobbyists.

“We will not take money from PACs or state lobbyists,” he said. “Including the people in this room.”

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