My Turn: Be like Granny D

  • Dan Weeks stands with Doris “Granny D” Haddock in 2003. Courtesy

For the Monitor
Published: 3/12/2020 6:30:23 AM
Modified: 3/12/2020 6:30:12 AM

Twenty years ago, a little old woman from Dublin, N.H., mounted the steps of the U.S. Capitol and entered the annals of American history.

Doris “Granny D” Haddock (1910-2010) held no elective office. She had no million dollar fortune in the bank. She was not vested with special authority to change the ways of Washington.

Yet this crusader for democracy was powerful. Her office was that of citizen. Her millions were the people she had touched along a most uncommon journey, and those she would inspire in the years to come. Her authority was of a moral nature – one that can only be gained through extraordinary acts of devotion or self-sacrifice.

The sacrifice for which she is remembered to this day was nothing short of miraculous: walking over 14 months and 3,200 miles through desert sun and winter snows across America, in a 90-year-old body racked by arthritis and emphysema, wearing a steel corset to support her aching back, sleeping in a rickety camper or stranger’s home or by the side of the road, all for the cause of campaign finance reform.

When Granny D arrived in Washington on Feb. 29, 2000, donning her trademark orange vest and broad straw hat, she was flanked by senators and representatives in suits who joined her final steps. They extolled her courage and wished her a safe flight home. Others sought to ignore her altogether. Yet it was not their personal approval (or disregard) she was after, nor even a good night’s sleep – she demanded their votes.

Her remarks to the assembled crowd on Capitol Hill made crystal clear the moral dimension of her cause to restore American democracy by ending campaign corruption.

Invoking the American soldiers interred at Arlington National Cemetery, among whose graves she had begun her final walk to the Capitol that very morning, Granny D asked, “Did you, brave spirits, give your lives for a government where we might stand together as free and equal citizens? Or did you give your lives so that laws might be sold to the highest bidder, turning this temple of our fair republic into a bawdy house where anything and everything is done for a price?”

As if her own extraordinary sacrifice was not enough, Granny D continued in the months and years that followed to march around Capitol Hill and lead sit-ins in the Capitol Rotunda to force passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, known as McCain-Feingold. She even got arrested for quietly reading the Declaration of Independence in the Capitol Rotunda.

“I was reading ... to make the point that we must declare our independence from the corrupting bonds of big money in our election campaigns,” Granny D told the judge at her Washington trial on May 24, 2000. “I did not raise my voice to do so and I blocked no hall. … I am here today while others block the halls with their corruption. Twenty-five million dollars are changing hands this very evening at a fundraiser down the street. It is the corrupt sale of public policy, and everyone knows it.” Her sentence was 10 dollars and time served.

On March 27, 2002, Granny D’s crusade finally paid off when a reluctant Congress voted to ban unlimited “soft money” in campaigns, and a still more reluctant President George W. Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill into law. It was a victory by any measure, the only meaningful piece of campaign finance reform legislation to become law in a generation.

Yet still Granny D, then 92 years old, refused to retire. Although she lacked a college degree, her old-fashioned common sense and careful study of American campaigns told her that big money would continue corrupting our politics until publicly funded elections took its place. Returning to New Hampshire, she became a founding director of Americans for Campaign Reform (now Issue One) in 2003 to pursue that very issue in Congress, and called me – a student from nearby Temple – to the cause.

Later, she founded Open Democracy to continue her walk for democracy at the state level, where publicly funded elections are making strides in New England. Inspired by her example and buoyed by her friendship, I was privileged to lead both organizations working with her and fellow reformers John Rauh, Lawrence Lessig and Olivia Zink – and countless other citizens she touched – to ensure campaign finance reform continues.

Although Granny D has passed, the cause to which she gave her “last full measure of devotion,” like those fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery, is far from over. Twenty years after that historic walk and 10 years after her death at age 100 on March 9, 2010, America is at a crossroads.

Rising health care costs leave tens of millions of people without care while pharmaceutical and health insurance companies use part of their record profits to fund Democratic and Republican campaigns to prevent competitive drug pricing and universal care, thereby boosting their bottom line. Mounting inequality leaves the bottom half of Americans with less wealth than the richest three individuals, and people of color with a tiny fraction of that, thanks to tax laws that repeatedly favor the same large businesses and wealthy (white) individuals who give the lion’s share of campaign cash to both parties.

A growing climate crisis threatens our very future yet fossil fuel companies that profit from global warming continue to lavish Republican leaders with campaign contributions to protect the billions of dollars they receive in taxpayer-funded subsidies to pollute our planet. And so the cycle goes …

While the symptoms of these and other disastrous policies may be complex, their underlying cause is simple: the corruption of public campaigns by private campaign cash. So long as elections for public office are deemed a private good and the Supreme Court permits wealthy special interests to spend without limit under a “free speech” facade, a free and democratic republic cannot stand.

It must stand.

Granny D stood and began her walk over 20 years ago in a powerless and dejected state of mind. She had lost her best friend, Elizabeth, and beloved husband, Jim, a year and six years earlier, respectively, after nursing each through a long and difficult illness. Yet, with each forward step and sacrifice, she added to her strength. In time, she became an irresistible force for good, an inspiration to many.

So must we. Using our individual endowments – whether money and influence, voice and heart, legs and a longing for justice – we must claim our power and use it to solve the issues of our day, beginning with our democracy. We must stand like Granny D.

(Dan Weeks was president of Americans for Campaign Reform (now Issue One) and executive director of Open Democracy until 2016. He began his campaign reform work after meeting Granny D as a ConVal High School student in 2000. He currently works on climate and clean energy in Nashua and serves on the Open Democracy advisory board.)

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