Lawmaker charges 'political extortion'
Katz won't budge on presidential vote bill
The News Journal
State Sen. Michael Katz has grown accustomed to being pressured, hounded and sweet-talked to support or reject bills before the
Delaware General Assembly.
But actions in recent weeks by groups pushing for a national popular vote to elect the president have Katz crying “political
extortion.” Katz charged that an organizer threatened him with a negative television ad – and even showed it to him – if he didn’t
sign the bill out of a committee he chairs.
Katz, a Democrat who has represented the Greenville area since 2009, said he now considers the bill “corrupted” and won’t take
any further action on it. He is reporting what he considers corrupt tactics to the Delaware Attorney General’s Office.
“I don’t think the public realizes how special interests spend money to intimidate legislators,” said Katz, an anesthesiologist by
profession. The popular-vote groups “have a profound misunderstanding of why I’m serving. I’m not going to be intimidated or
coerced into doing something I don’t think is right.”
The TV ad, produced by Florida-based Support Popular Vote at a reported cost of about $5,000, has not yet aired in Delaware.
The advocate whose actions so infuriated Katz is Chris Pearson, a state legislator from Vermont who works for National Popular
Vote, a sister group to Support Popular Vote.
Contacted by phone, Pearson did not contest Katz’s recollection but said he didn’t consider his tactics a threat.
“Katz has been in our way on this bill and we’ve tried a whole lot of things and we decided on some public pressure,” said
Pearson, a member of Vermont’s Progressive Party and one of 150 members of the state’s House of Representatives.
“We decided to show [the ad] to him as a courtesy. The primary goal is not to run ads, it’s to pass our bill. I don’t think that’s
extortion in any way.”
While threatening to run an attack ad against a politician unless he changes his position on legislation does not appear to violate
Delaware’s extortion law, veteran lawmakers in Delaware say Pearson’s tactics go beyond the bounds of the normal strong-
arming exercised by lobbyists, advocates and special interest groups.
Delaware lawmakers say attack ads or mailings often occur, but not after a “do this or else” ultimatum. Often, lawmakers say they
just hear rumors that money will start flowing to their election opponent when they don’t buckle to pressure or persuasion.
“Every legislator has been threatened in one way or another, like, ‘If you don’t do this we’re not going to support you,’ ” said House
Speaker Robert Gilligan, whose chamber passed the popular-vote bill 21-19 last year.
“But I’ve never had a situation where somebody walked into my office and said, ‘If you don’t do this we’re going to run an ad.’ I
would be very much taken aback. I would act the same way Katz did and tell them to get the hell out of my office.”
Charles E. Butler, chief deputy attorney general, said Katz “contacted our office with a request for general information about what
is and is not allowed in the context of issue advocacy. It is important to remember that in the area of ‘political speech,’ parties have
the broadest protections of the First Amendment.”
Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the Montana-based National Institute on Money in State Politics, was stunned to learn
of such a blatant example of “heavy-handed” political pressure.
“Wow! We do hear of this happening but we’ve never had a concrete example,” said Barber, whose nonprofit agency runs the
website followthemoney.org. Barber has been concerned such tactics might occur in light of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court
decision in the Citizens United case that allows corporations and unions to spend without limits on ads by independent groups in
“It smells bad, that’s for sure. I don’t know if it’s illegal, but I would agree this smacks of political extortion.”
Bill stalls in Senate
The movement to have the national popular vote decide the presidency stems from outrage over the 2000 election, when Texas
Gov. George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore by winning the electoral vote 271-266, even though Gore received some
500,000 more votes nationwide out of more than 105 million cast.
To become president, a candidate has to win at least 270 of the 538 electoral votes. Big states with huge populations such as
California and Texas have far more than tiny ones such as Rhode Island or Delaware, which has three. The number of electoral
votes each state gets is equal to its two senators plus its representatives in the U.S. House.
Since 2005, the two sister popular-vote groups, both formed by millionaire businessmen, have been pushing state legislatures to
join a compact to award all their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. The compact goes into effect once
states with a total of at least 270 electoral votes approve the plan.
Supporters of the initiative say the issue is simple: that the president should be the candidate who gets the most votes across
America. They argue that candidates ignore states where they figure to win or lose by a big margin because the electoral votes
are winner-take-all by state. They note that besides the Bush-Gore election, the winner of the popular vote also has lost three
other times, although the most recent election before 2000 was more than a century earlier – in 1888.
Opponents of changing the electoral system say it preserves federalism and has historically worked to give an authentic, definitive
result even to close elections. Among other arguments, they point out that conducting a nationwide recount in the event of an
ultra-close popular vote would be virtually impossible. “Can you imagine the chaos and crisis of a national recount?” Ohio State
University law professor Howard Fink wrote last year.
Currently, eight states and the District of Columbia, which collectively have 132 electoral votes, have passed laws to join the
compact. New Jersey and Maryland are two of those states.
In Delaware, the bill has broad support from Democratic lawmakers, with a smattering of Republicans in favor. A telephone survey
of 800 Delawareans who identified themselves as voters found that 75 percent favored choosing the president by a national
A bill to have Delaware join the compact has been in the General Assembly for nearly four years. It passed the House 23-12 in
June 2009 but died in the Senate. The Senate Executive Committee, headed by President Pro Tem Anthony DeLuca, released
the bill in late June 2010, but DeLuca never brought it to the Senate floor for a vote.
The bill was resurrected in 2011, and again passed the House, this time by a slimmer, two-vote margin. In the Senate, DeLuca
assigned it to a different panel, the Administrative Services/Elections Committee chaired by Katz. DeLuca’s office did not respond
to a reporter’s question about why the bill went to another committee.
Katz calls the issue “complex and fascinating,” but said it requires more research and he is not ready to sign it out of his
Katz held a committee hearing in January in which backers and foes of the bill spoke. Since then, the three other Democrats on
the panel – Patricia Blevins, Robert Marshall and David Sokola – signed to release it for a vote. But Katz and Republicans Joseph
Booth and David Lawson have not. Senate committees are not required to have formal votes like their counterparts in the House.
Katz said he has been feeling pressure from supporters to be the fourth member to sign it out of committee so the full Senate can
vote on it. In mid-May, Pearson contacted him to request a meeting. Days later, they met in Katz’s office in Legislative Hall.
“About three minutes into the conversation he said, ‘There are people who are thinking of running an ad against you if you don’t
sign this out,’ ” Katz recalled last week. “At which point I said, ‘Look, I’m really not interested in listening to this or being
threatened. I’m done.’ ”
“He was pretty upset that I cut the meeting short. He said, ‘I came 500 miles to meet with you. I deserve more than three minutes
of your time.’ ”
“Not when you threaten me,” Katz said he replied.
Katz said Pearson left but tried to reach him again in the ensuing days. Katz said he did not respond but at about 10 p.m. on May
23, Pearson sent him an email with the subject line, “NPV – TV spot.”
“Mike, Here is the ad,” Pearson wrote. “I’m assuming it will start next week but don’t really know. I hope we can talk to find a way
to avoid this going on air.”
Attached to the email was a 30-second video file titled “Katz Promised.”
In the ad, a man with a deep voice intones: “State Senator Mike Katz campaigned on a promise not to bottle up bills in
committees. Now he’s blocking a bill guaranteeing the presidency to the candidate who get the most votes from going to the
The speaker urges listeners to tell Katz to release the bill and “to let our votes really count.” Even though the 2008 poll did not
mention the legislation, the ad says “75 percent of Delawareans support” the bill. Viewers were directed to the website
supportpopularvote.com for more information.
After receiving the email, Katz contacted The News Journal to report Pearson’s tactics. The senator said he doesn’t object to ads
against him being run, but is appalled that a group would produce the ad and show it to him in an attempt to bend him to their will.
“I was almost in disbelief that someone would actually take the steps to threaten somebody that way,” said Katz, who stressed
that he wasn’t “bottling up” the bill but had a hearing and simply had not yet decided whether he wanted it moved for a full vote.
Pearson, who is serving his third two-year term in the Vermont House, serves as board secretary for the California-based National
Popular Vote and is working on the initiative in other states.
He said the exchanges with Katz were the first times he ever mentioned an attack ad or showed one to a politician who would not
comply with his wishes. He said no one from either organization told him to tell Katz about the ad or show it to him.
“It wasn’t like some plotted-out strategy,” Pearson said. “I just thought Katz should know.”
Pearson also defended the ad itself. “We’re expressing our frustration with an elected official. I have tried to talk to him for many
months about it. He has never given us one objection. It’s just been one delay and stall tactic after another. ... I don’t know how he
thinks it’s extortion.”
Pat Rosenstiel, a spokesman for both popular-vote groups, said ads have been run against two national politicians – Texas Gov.
and unsuccessful presidential candidate Rick Perry and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – because they
oppose the initiative.
Rosenstiel said he didn’t believe Perry and McConnell were told about the ads in advance and didn’t know of any such ads or
similar tactics used by Pearson against any other state lawmakers.
Rosenstiel challenged Katz’s claim that he was the victim of unethical pressure, suggesting Pearson was only alerting him about
the ad as a courtesy from one legislative “colleague” to another.
“We reject the idea that Chris Pearson’s email suggests any kind of threat or represents any quid pro quo,” Rostenstiel said.
Rosenstiel said the group plans to run the ad at some point, but has not yet bought television air time.
State Rep. Greg Lavelle, a Republican who is running against Katz for his Senate seat in the November election, said Pearson’s
tactics were out of line. “That’s inappropriate, to say the least,” said Lavelle, who voted against the bill both times in the House.
Lavelle stressed that he had nothing to do with the ad or with Pearson’s actions.
Lavelle criticized his election foe, however, for “holding up the bill.” Katz should take a stand and decide on releasing the bill,
Lavelle said, complaining that Senate rules don’t force committee members to vote yes or no.
Regardless of Katz’s machinations on the bill, Delaware lawmakers deplored how the Vermont lawmaker and popular-vote
advocate dealt with one of their colleagues, especially during an election year.
“It is extortion,” said Sen. George Bunting, a Bethany Beach Democrat, who applauded Katz for standing up to the pressure. “If
they think the Katz race is going to be highly contested, they could make some kind of difference by pumping out ads.”
Contact senior reporter Cris Barrish at 324-2785, email@example.com or on Facebook.