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Michael Toner ’92: An Insider’s Look at Presidential Campaigns and the Election Process

At a Law School Reunion lecture in June, Michael E. Toner ‘92 jokingly advised listeners: “Turn off the TV this fall, or you’ll see round-the-clock election advertisements.”

In the lecture, titled “A Brave New World in Campaign Finance,” he described the background of, and possible results from, the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

“The Citizens United ruling has demystified the process,” Toner explained in a recent interview. After all, he said, “independent advocacy on behalf of a presidential candidate has gone on for a long time.” He cites the “Swift Boat” group that opposed Kerry in 2004.

“We’re just entering prime time for the election,” he noted. “The Swift Boat people weren’t around until August of 2004. There will be several more groups, that have yet to emerge, that will have a big impact on the election.”

Toner understands elections. He served as chairman (2006) and commissioner (2002–2007) of the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the U.S. independent regulatory agency created to administer and enforce the statutes that govern the financing of federal elections. He has also been chief counsel for the Republican National Committee, and general counsel for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign and transition team. He is now a partner with Wiley Rein.

Toner’s interest in the election process began when he was still in high school. “I was one of those crazy people who stayed up late on election night to see what would happen,” he said. After receiving degrees from the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, he decided to attend Cornell Law School.

“The small size of the classes was really appealing,” Toner recalled. “I was concerned about getting lost at one of those schools with 500 in each class.” Also, he added, Cornell “historically had a great placement record on the East Coast; I’m from the East Coast and wanted to work here.” The Ivy League affiliation and excellent faculty sealed the deal.

He particularly enjoyed his Evidence class with Faust Rossi and his administrative law classes with Cynthia Farina. Winning the Moot Court Competition, with partner Stephen MacGillivray ‘92, was another standout experience.

Election law intrigues him, Toner explained, because of the constant changes. “We’re now in a more deregulatory era, while ten years ago the McCain-Feingold law expanded election law regulation. In five or ten years, we’ll likely be in some other era. It’s unpredictable because there are so many institutional actors—the legislature, the courts, the FEC.”

Working as counsel for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign was, he said, “a high-wire act. Campaigns have all the legal problems of a startup company, with the goal of spending every dime by November.” Although hired to ensure compliance with election law, said Toner, a campaign forces you to be a generalist—and to work fast.

For example, he remembers getting a late afternoon call from the campaign’s advance people. Ninety minutes before a campaign event, they were phoning to say they planned to have skydivers, and asking if they might need insurance. “That’s the kind of craziness you deal with,” he said. “You work 60–70 hour weeks, but you make extraordinary personal and professional friends. I have a lot of friends on the Democratic side who will say the same—you go through that together, you’ve bonded forever!”

He did get an insurance policy in place for the skydivers.

To keep the political process strong, Toner serves as a trustee for the American Council of Young Political Leaders. The group creates opportunities for next-generation political leaders to visit other countries, while foreign delegations of young leaders come to the United States. Alumni include current Senate and House of Representative leaders, as well as state governors, attorneys general, and secretaries of state.

“I’ve worked with that organization for a number of years,” Toner said. “In their early years, young politicians are a lot more approachable. And they look back on those experiences as formative. I find that very appealing. As the world shrinks, that kind of knowledge is vital.”

~Judith Pratt