Can Lawrence Lessig help get big money out of politics?

Last modified: 1/7/2015 8:55:41 PM
For Lawrence Lessig, the road to 2016 starts and ends in Dixville Notch, the tiny town up north where ballots traditionally open just after midnight for the very first voters in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The Harvard professor tried during last year’s midterms, with limited success, to put campaign finance reform on the map by launching Mayday PAC – his answer to big-money political action committees – and using it to back a handful of candidates who committed to the issue.

Those candidates included Jim Rubens, who lost the Republican nomination to New Hampshire’s Senate seat, and Carol Shea-Porter, the former Democratic congresswoman from District 1 who was ousted by Republican Rep. Frank Guinta. They also included four who lost races elsewhere – and two more who won, albeit only one in a “genuinely contested” race, Lessig acknowledged in an election postmortem.

Lessig, however, hasn’t given up on scaling back the influence of money on American democracy. And he thinks Granite Staters are well-positioned to help out.

“The only place in the nation where it’s plausible to introduce this idea and get the candidates to talk about it is New Hampshire,” Lessig said in an interview with the Monitor this week, citing residents’ relative political savvy and opportunities available to engage with presidential contenders here.

So in the tradition of resident Doris “Granny D” Haddock – the politically active centenarian and New Hampshire resident whose legacy is largely defined by a cross-country walk to crusade against money in politics – Lessig and supporters will embark next week on their latest leg in a series of marches across New Hampshire, all leading up to the state’s presidential primary. It’s part of another movement founded by Lessig, dubbed the “New Hampshire Rebellion.”

One walk will begin Sunday in Dixville Notch, with others starting later in Keene, Nashua and Portsmouth. All routes will, according to plans, converge on Concord by Jan. 21. The Rebellion took its first steps in a march held around the same time last year, and it’s planning to orchestrate another one next year that will arrive in Dixville Notch in time for the town’s midnight vote.

But the Rebellion will be doing more than just walking. The marches also serve as one recruiting tool to build a grassroots network of residents who can pose questions directly to the presidential candidates touring the state in the coming years, Lessig said. The group has in the works, among other things, an app designed to record videos of these conversations so they can be posted online for further discussion – in turn, Lessig hopes, drawing more and more attention to the prospect of reform.

“If there are a critical number of people who are making that push, there’s a chance that there is a candidate or two who begin to say, ‘Okay, this is my chance,’ ” Lessig said. “And that begins to shift the scope of the conversation.”

Real change, as Lessig sees it, hinges on both the president and Congress. And while he works on the first part of that equation in New Hampshire, he’ll also be working with others toward a legislative majority that would support meaningful reform.

Even with Mayday’s defeats, Lessig said the midterms offered a few important lessons he hopes to apply to future races.

In New Hampshire, his support for Rubens – who, in Lessig’s eyes, offered genuine solutions to excessive political spending – was interpreted by some as an effort to undermine Scott Brown’s candidacy on behalf of Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. Moving forward, Lessig said he’ll try to see that Mayday PAC sticks to “safe” primary elections “where we can be doing our work without anybody thinking we are doing it for partisan reasons.”

The foray into real-world elections also offered Lessig the chance to witness firsthand the challenges that come with transparency: In one race, he said, his chosen candidate’s opponent was able to easily target donors whose names were disclosed. Had Mayday gone the “dark money” route and set up an outside organization through which it could funnel funds anonymously, he said, that wouldn’t have been as much of an issue. (Lessig said that doesn’t mean Mayday will go into dark money in the future.)

And, if nothing else, one other lesson became abundantly clear.

“The challenge is not to convince people there is a problem; everybody gets the problem, everybody understands it. There’s no education necessary to recognize the way money has corrupted our politics,” Lessig said. “The challenge is to give people a sense that there is a solution.”

Some solutions have already been proposed and, in Lessig’s eyes, could be realistic if taken seriously by more legislators: There’s Rubens’s proposal to implement a “small-dollar voucher” system to fund elections, and another proposal by Democratic U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes to create a “Freedom From Influence” matching fund that would “multiply the impact of small-dollar donations.”

So Lessig, for his part, plans to keep trudging forward in hopes of some kind of fix. He’s got his waterproof hiking boots and liner socks ready to go.

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)


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