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My Turn: Take the battle against big money to the candidates

Last modified: 6/7/2014 1:25:12 AM
Big money flowing into our elections is moving us ever further from Lincoln’s ideal: government of the people, for the people and by the people. This problem is not new, but what had been a tide is becoming a flood. With each campaign, our elected officials grow more dependent on big donations from special interests and less dependent on us, their constituents.

We, the people, get it. Our trust in the federal government has sunk so low that fighting corruption was second only to creating jobs in a 2012 Gallup Poll on priorities for the next president. Unfortunately, the leading candidates didn’t talk about solutions in 2012, and they aren’t talking about them now.

We need to make them, and a new nonpartisan organization called the New Hampshire Rebellion has given me – and thousands of others – genuine hope that we can. The plan is simple: insist that every candidate in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primary spell out his or her proposed solution.

An important point: It’s the system that is corrupt, not – with rare exceptions – the people we elect. Thirty years as a reporter and editor in New Hampshire taught me that overwhelmingly, candidates and elected officials across the political spectrum are ethical, decent people. We need to stop making them swim in a sewer of special-interest money.

Good idea, you might be thinking, but other things are more important. Harvard law professor and New Hampshire Rebellion founder Lawrence Lessig agrees. But he argues persuasively that no issue is more urgent. Why? Because real progress on other critical issues – for conservatives, moderates and liberals who aren’t mega-donors – is unlikely until we make Congress listen to and depend on voters much more than corporate lobbyists.

Special-interest lobbies have grown exponentially in number and power in recent decades, dazzling even insiders like Washington lobbyist Gerald Cassidy, the central figure in the 2009 book So Damn Much Money.

“Today’s members of the House and Senate lead lives that their predecessors of a generation or two ago would not recognize, because so much of their time is devoted to the search for money,” Cassidy told author Robert Kaiser. “. . . No one will stop fundraising because it could end their career. They raise money out of fear.”

A one-vote Supreme Court majority in the 2010 Citizens United case and other cases has made the situation worse. In the 2012 election, a mere 132 individual Americans (out of about 313 million) accounted for 60 percent of the contributions to Super PACs. The framers of our Constitution, who deeply feared concentrated power, would be appalled.

This broken system can be fixed. An important partial solution that could be in place soon is to give matching public funds to candidates who, after demonstrating they already have significant support, agree to limit the size of private contributions to their campaigns.

We had such a system for presidential campaigns, funded by citizens checking a box on their tax returns, and it worked for decades. Three states have public funding for state elections – Arizona, Maine and Connecticut – and voters and candidates alike are pleased with the results. When New York almost joined the club in 2013, a national Gallup Poll found more people in favor of public funding than opposed (50 percent to 44 percent).

We’ve reached a tipping point for reform. The Great Recession that began in 2007 exposed government and private institutions as deeply flawed and unable to protect ordinary people. The Supreme Court, contrary to common sense and the beliefs of most Americans, has declared that corporations are people and that enormous spending by a billionaire on politics is speech legally equivalent to actual speech by an ordinary citizen.

Lessig and other leaders of this fight acknowledge it is a tough one. But they have reminded me that when millions of Americans across the political spectrum get riled up and demand change, Congress will listen and will act, and in due course, so will the Supreme Court.

There is no better place to get the ball rolling than New Hampshire. Groups that began small have proved that New Hampshire voters can get presidential candidates to address issues and adopt or change positions. It happens to some degree in every primary.

Interested? I suggest you start by watching Lessig’s talk, “We the People, and the Republic we must reclaim” and visiting NHRebellion.org. Then, sign the petition, talk to family and friends, write letters, or speak out on social media. Host someone from our speakers bureau, or become part of it. Help with house parties we plan for candidates or make a donation.

Last but far from least, join us for our next big event! In memory of New Hampshire’s own Granny D, a pioneer in this cause, Lessig and supporters walked 185 miles through the state in January to help spread the word. The walk was a big success, so we’re doing it again on the Seacoast on July 5. Total turnout is far more important than how much of the 16 miles you walk. If you can’t make it, express your support that weekend in other ways.

Our government will change, but only if we demand it, and keep demanding it. As anthropologist Margaret Mead famously observed: “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

(Joe Magruder lives in Concord and spent most of his long career in journalism as news editor for the Associated Press in New Hampshire, where he covered eight presidential primaries. He is a member of the New Hampshire Rebellion’s volunteer advisory committee.)


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