Once Ruled By Washington Insiders, Campaign Finance Reform Goes Grass Roots

Apr 4, 2016
Originally published on April 7, 2016 2:58 pm

It was raining lightly when marchers of the Democracy Spring coalition set out Saturday, trudging past Independence Hall in Philadelphia on their way south toward Washington, D.C.

"I came on the train. Two days. Slept in the train station last night," Miram Kashia said, laughing. A self-proclaimed climate action warrior, she traveled from North Liberty, Iowa. She blamed political money's influence for blocking action on the climate, and added, "I'm retired but it's a full time job for me, being an activist."

The issue of money in politics is hotter this year than in any presidential election since Watergate. Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both call for public funding designed to give small donors more power.

And campaign finance reform has gone grass roots. Since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010 — the ruling that let corporations and unions spend to promote or attack candidates — there have been marches, petitions, municipal declarations and other protests around the country.

What caught Linda Battista's attention was the government's rescue of Wall Street, and the lack of legal consequences for Wall Street's big donors. "The bailout was the straw that broke the camel's back," the Philadelphia resident said. "Billions of dollars that wealthy people are just sitting on, while cuts are being made to schools and everybody else is just dealing with austerity."

In other words, it wasn't the issue of political money that got the marchers headed to Washington. It was the way the money affects, or is perceived to affect, elected officials.

Upcoming protests on Capitol Hill protests may be the most dramatic example yet.

Democracy Spring includes more than 100 liberal organizations working on environmental, justice and other issues. More than 1,000 participants have pledged to let themselves be arrested when the protests start next Monday. The following week, a second wave of activists arrives in another coalition, called Democracy Awakening.

On Saturday, about 200 people rallied in the rain before the march. Kai Newkirk, the head of 99 Rise, the group organizing Democracy Spring, told the soggy crowd that members of Congress can't tackle the big issues until they stop taking money that's contributed to protect the status quo.

"It's not every day that people proclaim and promise that they're going to sit in and non-violently, peacefully occupy the seat of their government," Newkirk said.

Congress regards campaign finance as an issue best handled by a few experts, the easier to be ignored by everyone else. But lawmakers may have missed a change in public opinion.

Some polls show people agreeing with the system's critics. Clinton and Sanders both campaign on the issue. At a Wisconsin rally, Sanders declared, "What this campaign is about is talking about a corrupt campaign finance system."

Lonna Atkeson, director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico, said it all depends on how a pollster frames the questions.

"You have a most-important-problem question, where campaign finance gets really low, single digit scores," she said. "And then you might have, well, what's wrong with elections, what's wrong with election campaigns, and then you go, whoa, all the money in it. "

By now, Atkeson said, "this is not an issue that's going to go away, because it's attacking people at all of their levels of government, it's becoming a part of the national dialogue."

The visionary of the new, expanded reform movement is another professor, Larry Lessig of Harvard Law. He's written a book about political money, organized other grass-roots groups, even tried running for president on the issue last year.

At the march, Lessig said the goal is not to undo Citizens United.

"Citizens United was the best thing for the reform movement since Richard Nixon. What it did was rally people," he said. But big donors already had too much sway, he said: "The democracy was already dead. The Supreme Court might have shot the body, but the body was already cold."

The solution, according to Lessig and other progressive advocates: Government-funded vouchers for small donors, to give them more clout. Both Clinton and Sanders have endorsed the system.

"That is the single most important change that could happen," Lessig said. "And in 10 years it's gone from being impossible to imagine to being conventional for both of them."

Actress Gaby Hoffmann gave her short speech in the rain. She connected the weather to the movement's goal.

"It's incredibly difficult, actually," she said of the reform effort. "And I think this little bit of gray sky and rain is here to remind us that it's not going to be easy."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It used to be that no one outside of Washington discussed campaign finance much. Now the topic can bring people out on the streets.

Spurred by grassroots activists, both Democratic presidential candidates say they want to give small donors more of a say in politics. And this week, as NPR's Peter Overby reports, protesters are marching from Philadelphia to Capitol Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Show me what democracy looks like.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: This is what democracy looks like.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The protest is called Democracy Spring. The march began Saturday in Philadelphia, activists walking past Independence Hall in a light rain.

MIRIAM KASHIA: I came on the train - two days. Slept in the train station last night (laughter).

OVERBY: Miriam Kashia is from North Liberty, Iowa. She calls herself a climate action warrior. She said political money's influence is blocking action on the climate.

KASHIA: I'm retired, but I - it's a full-time job for me, being an activist.

OVERBY: Linda Battista of Philadelphia said the Wall Street bailout is what turned her attention to political money.

LINDA BATTISTA: The bailout was the straw that broke the camel's back. Billions of dollars that wealthy people are just sitting on while cuts are being made to schools. Everybody else is dealing with austerity...

OVERBY: ...In other words, the issue of political money didn't get the marching. Its impact, or perceived impact, did. Before the march, about 200 people rallied in the rain. Organizer Kai Newkirk told them members of Congress can't tackle any of the big issues until they stop taking money that's contributed to protect the status quo.

KAI NEWKIRK: It's not every day that people proclaim and promise that they're going to sit in and non-violently, peacefully occupy the seat of their government.

OVERBY: Congress regards campaign finance as an issue best handled by a few experts so it can be ignored by everybody else. But lawmakers may have missed a change in public opinion. Some polls show people agreeing with the system's critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, here campaigning in Wisconsin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: What this campaign is about is talking about a corrupt campaign finance system.

OVERBY: Lonna Atkeson is director of the Center for the Study of Voting, Elections and Democracy at the University of New Mexico.

LONNA ATKESON: You have a most important problem question where campaign finance gets really low, single-digit scores. And then you might have well, what's wrong with elections? What's wrong with election campaigns? And then you might go, oh, well, all the money in it.

OVERBY: By now, Atkeson said -

ATKESON: This is not an issue that's going to go away because it's attacking people at all of their levels of government. It's becoming a part of the national dialogue.

OVERBY: Another professor, Larry Lessig of Harvard Law, is the visionary of the new, expanded reform movement. He even tried running for president on the issue last year. At the march, he said the goal is not to undo the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that helped big donors. It's to offer taxpayer-funded support for small donors, the system backed by both Clinton and Sanders.

LARRY LESSIG: That is the single most important change that could happen. And in, you know, 10 years it's gone from being impossible to imagine to being, you know, conventional for both of them.

OVERBY: Hollywood star Gaby Hoffman gave her short speech in the rain. She connected it to the movement's goal.

GABY HOFFMAN: It's incredibly difficult, actually, and I think that this little bit of gray sky and rain is here to remind us that it's not going to be easy.

OVERBY: Democracy Spring activists are due to reach Washington this weekend and start their sit-ins next week. After that, they'll be joined by another wave of activists for more days of demonstrations and possibly more arrests. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.