The Common Good
September-October 2000

Clean Money

by Micah L. Sifry | September-October 2000

For activists dedicated to transforming the role that money plays in our politics,
these are the best of times and the worst of times.

For activists dedicated to transforming the role that money plays in our politics, these are the best of times and the worst of times. Worst—as everyone knows, at an estimated $3 billion-plus the 2000 election is already shaping up as the most expensive in history, and Congress has shown no signs of passing any serious re-

forms. Best—the rising clamor for change is finally being reflected by some of our leading political figures, and more important because of signal victories in several states. Without wearing rose-colored glasses, it’s safe to say that the movement for comprehensive campaign finance reform is making real headway.

The biggest change, of course, is how the issue has risen in the public eye—starting with the protests in Seattle and on through Sen. John McCain’s surprising surge in the early Republican primaries. Despite the economic boom times, a great deal of dissent is bubbling just beneath the surface at how corporate fat-cats have hijacked our democratic institutions. A 90-year-old great-grandmother, Doris Haddock (aka "Granny D"), became a folk hero for walking across the country for reform; later, after she was arrested (with 30 others) inside the Capitol Rotunda for trying to protest "crimes against democracy," a D.C. judge embraced her and praised her efforts.

Four years ago, people mostly laughed when Jerry Brown tried to making campaign finance corruption an issue in the presidential primaries; this year all the major presidential candidates felt compelled to address it—even George W. Bush tried to claim the mantle of "reformer with results." One striking indication of the change: Exit polls of Republican primary voters showed many of them citing the need for campaign reform as the number one reason for their vote—more than those citing abortion or education as their top concern. Both Democratic candidates proposed to make full public financing of congressional elections the cornerstone of their reform planks (albeit without covering primaries, a fatal flaw). And even after dropping out of the race, McCain continued to play an effective gadfly role, irritating the Republican congressional leadership and forcing the passage of a modest but needed measure to clamp down on secretly funded political committees.

But the real reason for optimism is not the increased lip service being paid to the need for reform. After all, at the same time that Al Gore promises to fight for real changes in the system, his campaign is charging as much as $500,000 a ticket to gala Democratic fund raisers. And Bush, who has broken all records for presidential fund raising, is a walking corporate manikin.

The good news is happening in the states, the laboratories of democracy. Just about every major social reform of note in American history has originated at the state level. Such is also the case with rescuing our democracy from wealthy special interests.

Four states—Maine, Vermont, Arizona, and Massachusetts—have enacted clean money campaign reforms; that is, full public financing for candidates who agree voluntarily to limit their spending and raise no private money. This is the critical measure of real reform—breaking our elected officials’ direct dependence on private money to finance their campaigns. Two more states—Missouri and Oregon—will vote on similar initiatives this November.

Even more significant, in Maine, Arizona, and Vermont the first wave of clean election candidates are running for state offices. And regardless of party or whether they are incumbents or challengers, they describe the experience of not having to raise money the old-fashioned way as profoundly liberating.

"When I tell constituents that I’m not taking any soft money, no PAC money, and no private contributions whatsoever, their reaction is one of amazement," first-time Maine state legislative candidate Glenn Cummings says. "Then they say, ‘That means you’ll really have to listen to us.’"

"This is about everyday people coming into the process," says fellow Mainer and first-time candidate Jolene Lovejoy. "Last time I ran," says incumbent Maine state senator Susan Longley, "I was thinking about raising $38,000. Now I’m thinking about how to get votes from my 38,000 constituents."

The biggest problem we have in winning the fight for real reform is not convincing the public that change is needed, it is defeating public cynicism that nothing can ever really change. Clean money measures like the ones moving ahead in the states will take time and hard work, but eventually change will come as well to Washington, D.C.

MICAH L. SIFRY is senior analyst for Public Campaign (contact 888-OUR-VOICE, or visit www.publicampaign.org).

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