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Think Again: Campaign-Finance Reform in an Age of Corporate Influence

SOURCE: AP/ Lauren Victoria Burke

Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer attended a 2006 Supreme Court's ruling that upheld limitless corporate donations to politicians. The decision came with an important addendum: Don't expect things to change anytime soon.

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Fred Wertheimer wrote a new op-ed this week arguing for campaign-finance reform, including the need for public financing of elections to help reduce corporate influence in our elections. This one happens to be in Politico, but given the level of importance and longevity of the issue, it could’ve been anyone making the same argument in any news outlet at almost any time in the past 40 or more years.

Wertheimer has been a Washington institution since he joined the citizens’ lobby Common Cause. He is now the president of Democracy 21, a nonpartisan nonprofit group that works to strengthen democracy and empower citizens in the political process. Unlike most political institutions in Washington, Democracy 21 hits Democrats just as hard as Republicans.

I arrived in D.C. in the summer of 1982 to work in the public interest community, and Wertheimer was already a macher of considerable proportions. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to him, but I always admired his type: the person who comes to Washington to fight the good fight, but loses, then loses again, then loses some more, all while watching his opponents move on to positions not only of power and influence but also great wealth.

I’m sure this assessment is a little unfair, and Wertheimer can probably point to a few victories over the years. But the fact is, no single problem plaguing American politics is more vexing than that of the power of money in politics. I’ve written about this problem more times than I can count, most recently in a lengthy article on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and the future of liberalism for The Nation.

Wertheimer’s recent op-ed is devoted to Democracy 21’s newest project to reform the campaign-finance laws of New York state, where Gov. Cuomo has expressed support for reform, but has yet to take specific actions to accomplish that goal. Following his victories on marriage equality and gun control in the state legislature, however, he appears to be ready to make clean elections a priority.

A few weeks ago I attended a meeting with corporate leaders who favor such reform that was organized by the Committee for Economic Development and the Brennan Center for Justice. I was pleasantly surprised by the passion Gov. Cuomo, who was the featured speaker, expressed regarding the topic:

People … have become disassociated from their government, and they just don’t believe and they don’t trust and they think that government isn’t about them. And that is a killer. … Nothing will restore the [public’s] trust more than campaign finance [reform]. And until we have [that], nothing else will.

As Wertheimer explains:

The proposed New York state reform effort is modeled on a New York City system that has been successfully used for the past 15 years to finance city elections. Under the system, the first $175 of a contribution to a New York City candidate is matched with public funds at a 6:1 ratio. Thus, if a donor contributes $150, the candidate ends up with a total of $1,225. According to studies, the New York City system has resulted in many new small donors and a more diverse group of contributors.

This is crucial because, as Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, told me, “Most people recognize the biggest problem with our political system is that elected officials have the wrong priorities because they spend so much time raising money from a few special interests whom they need to pay for their elections.” Norden calls public-matching funds for small contributions “the game changer” in the current system of legalized corruption because it encourages small donors to give money to campaigns, which makes them feel like they can make a difference.

The issue of campaign-finance reform is also a popular one. More than 80 percent of every ideological and partisan subgroup expressed agreement that, “There is way too much corporate money in politics” and supported a “systemic solution to the problem of the role of money in politics,” according to a fall 2012 study published by Demos. And a December 2012 survey of 504 New Yorkers conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Public Campaign Action Fund found that close to 80 percent of them support a reform package that included the public financing of elections.

The problem, however, is that while such support is wide, it is rarely deep. Since it is an electoral-process issue, it does not frequently excite voters—and even when it does, it usually fails to excite reporters. This is ironic because the issue of campaign finance is the essence of “good government”—for which the free press exists to monitor. The editorial page of The New York Times is dedicated to raising the profile of the issue, for instance, and while that newspaper does not ignore the role of money in its news pages, it also does not always do a good job of demonstrating that this corruption costs citizens real money.

To be fair to journalists, that is not an easy task. In the first place, such stories are complicated and are rarely exciting to read. This is especially a problem in a media environment that is driven by sensationalism and suffers from severely diminished resources. Second, the power of money influences so many aspects of our lives that it can be an enormous challenge merely to conceive of, much less report on, them in an understandable manner.

To give you an idea of the scope, on the morning I wrote this column, The New York Times published a terrific report on the manner in which financial institutions evade regulation by hiring former staffers of the very congressional committees and government agencies that were set up to regulate them. Then, these financial institutions pay these former watchdogs many multiples of what they could possibly earn working for the public sector. Another similarly revealing Times report explains the way in which ex-staffers of powerful U.S. senators use their personal connections to help corporations actually write the regulations and tax laws that govern their industries. These kinds of stories, however, only create the kind of powerful narrative that can force politicians to act in times of financial panic. And this is in no way the fault of journalists. Rather, it’s another unattractive feature of our dysfunctional political and media cultures.

Upstate New Yorkers recently saw a state Senate election that gave many observers a rare ray of hope. In a district that the Republicans gerrymandered to their advantage, Cecilia “Cece” Tkaczyk (D-NY) beat a wealthy incumbent named Assemblyman George Amedore, despite being outspent and well behind in the polls a month before Election Day. She won by turning her campaign into a crusade for publicly financed elections and making that little local election into a referendum on democracy itself. Amedore and his supporters complained of a “Cece tax” that they said would be necessary to pay for publicly financed elections, but Tkaczyk’s support surged. And despite a last-ditch George W. Bush-style attack on the vote counters attempting to disqualify votes, 73 days after the polls closed, Tkaczyk won by a mere 18 votes.

Gov. Cuomo did nothing to help Tkaczyk in her quest to defeat a Tea Party Republican because of differences with her on “other issues,” according to one of his aides. He is also a successful fundraiser from private donors, who, because of New York’s lax laws, do not need to reveal themselves. Now longtime soldiers in this fight find themselves betting on Gov. Cuomo as their hope to transform New York’s electoral system and rejuvenate the issue nationwide. It may yet work. But for this to happen, journalists are going to have to find a way to make this process issue real for millions of Americans as Tkaczyk was able to do in her door-to-door, neighbor-to-neighbor campaign in upstate New York.

Is this possible? Perhaps not, but for the likes of Fred Wertheimer and his comrades, it’s just another day in the life of a never-ending battle to help protect American “democracy” from itself.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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