Eric is from Detroit, Michigan. He was politically interested from an early age, and in the late 1960s, he began to follow political developments through magazines and the Wall Street Journal. In 1976, he attended a speech in Detroit by economist Milton Friedman. It happened to be the day that Friedman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics.
From late 1973 to early 1976, Eric worked running drill presses at Detroit Broach and Machine where he was a member of the United Steelworkers of America, Local 7489.
Eric’s direct political activities began in 1976 with a contribution to the Libertarian Party presidential campaign of Roger MacBride. Eric read about the sweeping regulations of campaign activities based on the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act amendments, which were sold as a response to Watergate. Their actual intent, and the result, was to handicap challengers and therefore entrench incumbents. Many aspects of the law were ruled unconstitutional in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, but unfortunately the Supreme Court decided to rewrite the law rather than reject it. The plaintiffs in that case were Conservative Senator James Buckley of New York State, former Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, and the Libertarian Party, with Edward H. Crane III as chairman. Crane was active in the presentation of the case, and keen to the new law’s ability to cripple dissenting political views.
In 1979, Eric was elected to the Libertarian National Committee, where Ed Crane served. Crane recruited David Koch as the vice-presidential candidate to minimize the damage from the contribution limits imposed in the F.E.C.A. amendments. In 1980, Eric worked full-time in the Libertarian presidential campaign, first as a volunteer finishing the petition drives in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, then as National Field Coordinator from the Washington, D.C. headquarters. In late 1980, Eric was elected National Director of the Libertarian Party.
In 1981, the Libertarian Party endured an audit from the Federal Election Commission, which involved two full-time auditors spending several days looking over the Libertarian Party’s records. They did not find any problems. In this time, Senator McCarthy invited Ed Crane and Eric to dine with him in the Senate dining room, where the trio discussed the situation with political speech and regulation, among other things.
Eric left Libertarian Party politics for good in 1983 after a year studying the history of politics and parties from the 1770s to the 1920s. Regulations in the Progressive Era crippled third parties and gutted the power of political party organizations. As G. William Domhoff told his left-wing audience in a 1974 Ramparts article, the Democratic Party label was up for grabs. He recommended that communists and socialists run as Democrats. State governments, not party organizations, controlled the labels. The same logic applied to libertarians, or people of any beliefs. So subsequently Eric’s strategic advice to donors and others has always recommended focusing on issues, issue organizations, or support or opposition for particular candidates. The party organizations could no longer hold their own candidates accountable, so the role must be undertaken by others.
While Eric spent most of the 1980s alternately studying political history or trading options, various political projects attracted his engagement, including promoting a balanced budget amendment with the National Taxpayers Union. In 1988, O’Keefe joined the board of directors of the Cato Institute. He joined strategy discussions and sent memos to influential people arguing both against third party efforts, and in favor of participating through issue groups rather than through Republican or Democratic party organizations.
Political party operations are generally controlled by incumbents, but who holds incumbents accountable? Without independent platforms, no one has the infrastructure to challenge or criticize incumbents. And most districts for Congress as well as state legislatures are effectively one-party districts. That means that voters have no choice in most elections – unless there are independent groups willing to back challengers in primary elections.
Meanwhile, Cato President Ed Crane suggested that Eric get involved in promoting congressional term limits. His suggestion led Howie Rich and Eric to form U.S. Term Limits, with Crane on the board, at the end of 1991. U.S. Terms Limits then executed a plan based on an ambitious strategy memo Eric authored, calling for a blitz of initiatives in a number of states to allow voters to circumvent the opposition of incumbent politicians. U.S. Terms Limits helped organizations in 23 states put congressional term limit initiatives in front of voters. Voters embraced the approach, passing the initiatives with sweeping margins. The New Hampshire legislature joined them.
But the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision in May 1995 ruled that voters could not impose limits on the terms of their own congressional delegations; congressional limits in 23 states were thereby nullified. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a searing but scholarly dissent which captured the spirit of America’s founders.
Term limits did remain in effect on fifteen state legislatures and additional governors and other officeholders. U.S. Term Limits also implemented a major innovation in political communication by creating Americans for Limited Terms to run aggressive pre-election issue advertising. The complex new laws of 1974 and the rewrite by the Supreme Court deterred participation in politics, as it was intended to do.
However nothing in the law, the Buckley decision, or subsequent decisions precluded advertising to promote issue positions, even if that advertising might well influence voters, and therefore elections. So Eric recommended that friends of U.S. Term Limits set up a new entity, to limit exposure in the event of the F.E.C. complaints and possible other litigation we expected to meet for promoting our political views. Eric helped raise and spend about $1.4 million on ads critical of various Democratic incumbents. Most notably, $300,000 was spent criticizing House Speaker Tom Foley of Spokane, Washington for suing to overturn the term limits law voters in his state had approved in 1992.
Americans for Limited Terms’ television ads showed a tear rolling down the cheek of the George Washington face on an image of Mount Rushmore. Foley lost by less than two percentage points, becoming the first Speaker to lose reelection since the Civil War. Eric subscribed to the Spokane Spokesman Review that year, and had many articles taped up to the wall of his office. While some left-wing advocates for speech regulation claimed ALT’s ads were illegal, Eric was surprised when not one single complaint was filed with the F.E.C. Tom Foley was a constitutional attorney and recognized that those involved with ALT were acting within their rights.
ALT proved that there was much more room for political debate than others had thought, and 1996 saw a wave of issue ads from groups of all kinds, invigorating political discourse in America. It also greatly upset incumbent politicians, who began working toward the crackdown which became the McCain-Feingold bill.
But meanwhile, after the term limits defeat before the Supreme Court, Eric tried other efforts to promote term limits in 1996 and 1998. One of those efforts was a modest campaign in Wisconsin which drew an attack from a politician, and a judge who actually ordered stations not to air perfectly legal issue ads. At the time, Eric was president of Americans for Limited Terms, and he was subpoenaed to appear before an attorney in Attorney General Jim Doyle’s office. The state was pursuing a similar complaint against Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, which led to a state Supreme Court defeat for the state.
So the case against ALT was ended, though ALT did not try to recover its $35,000 in legal expenses — which exceeded the cost of its modest campaign. And of course ALT did not recover the opportunity to engage in pre-election speech which had been denied by a judge overeager to please a politician, and under-familiar with the laws of the land.
That situation is discussed in the article Morning at the Ministry of Speech, by Jonathan Rauch, which is available on-line. In 1999, Eric’s book Who Rules America was published, with praise from Eric’s ally Milton Friedman, the great economist and freedom advocate. It has a chapter addressing the use of campaign finance regulations to stifle political dissent and entrench incumbent politicians.
After leftists operating from a base in large foundations succeeded in their multi-year, $300 million dollar campaign to impose McCain-Feingold speech regulations on America, Eric joined an effort to create a new entity to focus on the protection of political speech, which became the Center for Competitive Politics, with former FEC chairman Brad Smith as chairman. Eric was a founding board member and remains on the board of directors. The Center has been involved in key cases involving political speech, in addition to providing testimony and commentary in states and Congress. The Center filed influential briefs in the Citizens United case as well as the SpeechNow case, both of which were key in reopening the political process after several years under the McCain-Feingold constraints. After those two decisions, our system is more open for vigorous political debate than at any time since the imposition of the 1974 FECA amendments.
However, there are many state regulators who oppose the freedom to debate, and who do not intend to respect or follow the law, and some of them work for the Government Accountability Board in Wisconsin. After the Citizens United and SpeechNow decisions, the Government Accountability Board wrote new regulations in clear defiance of the court decisions. The Wisconsin Club for Growth joined the liberal group One Wisconsin in suing against the regulations; the Government Accountability Board recognized its weak position, and negotiated more limited regulations with the parties, so we settled before trial.
Those regulations are still overly broad and likely unconstitutional, however Eric’s operations are compliant with even the questionable provisions of the regulations. In 2005, Americans for Limited Government started an effort to bring spending limit initiatives and eminent domain initiatives in front of millions of voters. This effort was organized by those who had run the term limits operations in the 1990s.
The tax limitation and eminent domain initiatives did not meet with the same level of success, as union organizers had spread their method of “blocking,” where thuggish behavior on the street is used to impair the efforts of petitioners. They also organized attacks in the media and in courtrooms. They sued against nearly every effort, and kept initiatives off the ballot in several states, while sinking support in others. Not content with preventing votes, the Attorney General of Oklahoma even indicted three of the organizers of the effort.
By then Eric had launched the Sam Adams Alliance, which employed one of the targets, Paul Jacob. Paul had a potential ten-year prison sentence hanging over his head, but was patiently defiant during the 17 months of purgatory, before the state dropped the case and mailed a check for $143,000 to Paul’s attorneys in Kansas City.
The Sam Adams Alliance was active from 2007 through 2011, encouraging citizen engagement in politics, with specialties in studying and training citizen activists and bloggers. In 2010, the Health Care Compact Alliance was launched with Eric’s support to promote a key governance reform that is nearly opposite of the PPACA, popularly known as Obamacare.
Obamacare centralizes decision making with bureaucrats working for the federal government; the Health Care Compact disperses decision making and dollars to the member states. While eight states have passed the Compact, it requires congressional approval so remains only a possible solution to the governance crisis in healthcare.
In 2011, Eric joined as co-chair of the Campaign for Primary Accountability, a nonpartisan SuperPAC created to highlight the essential role of primary elections in our political process. The PAC participated heavily in nine congressional primaries, in all cases supporting the challenger to a veteran incumbent. The challengers prevailed in four of those races. More importantly, CPA elevated the insight that primary elections are the only way to hold an incumbent accountable in most districts.
The use of “primary” as an active verb became much more common because of CPA’s efforts, and the word is that concern about primary elections is now a fact of life on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile in 2004 Eric encouraged people involved with the Club for Growth to support similar efforts at the state level, as part of an accountability infrastructure. Later Eric served on the national Club board for two years. The national Club charted state chapters in seven or eight states before losing enthusiasm for the project. The chapter in Pennsylvania achieved early success, but later idled. Kansas has a Club which had a notably influential year in 2012.
The Wisconsin Club focused on select state legislative elections over the years, and also highlighted issues in periods with Supreme Court elections. Then the Club found itself in the middle of the intense political conflict in Wisconsin, and stepped up to play a leading role in communicating with Wisconsin voters in 2011. That action began when 70,000 protesters were marching around the Capitol; it continued through a close Supreme Court election battle, and culminated by putting information in front of voters to counter a massive effort run by national union bosses to undermine Republican senators facing recall elections. Defending the legislators who backed Gov. Walker’s reforms became Eric’s main objective early in 2011, and he turned away from much of his national political work.
The Wisconsin Club for Growth was the major platform for Eric’s efforts to raise money and fund communications with voters in the most focused and effective fashion. These activities were conducted by meticulous operatives with many years of experience, with the review of the Club’s approach by skilled counsel familiar with the state of the law, and with Eric’s oversight and overall responsibility for the operation. The Wisconsin Club for Growth did not advertise in connection with the recall effort against Gov. Walker in 2012.
After the Wisconsin successes, Eric turned to national political organizing through Citizens for Self-Governance, which has been encouraging the development of Wisconsin-style infrastructure in other states, and is also encouraging legislators across the country to call for a Convention of the States to address the major problems Congress will not address. In 2013, Citizens for Self-Governance assisted a number of groups in filing a class action lawsuit against the IRS for illegal and harassing behavior in the handling and processing of applications for non-profit status.