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Push is on for political finance reform



Recorder Staff
Monday, August 29, 2016

$2.3 billion.

That’s how much has been raised so far in this year’s presidential, Senate and congressional campaigns by candidates and political action committees supporting them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But groups with Franklin County connections are working to reform political finance laws that many Americans believe are eroding democracy.

Northampton-based Represent.Us is behind ballot measures in Washington state and South Dakota that would require transparency to reveal who’s paying for political advertising, create public campaign financing and limit campaign contributions and personal spending, while also strengthening enforcement of campaign finance laws.

The nonprofit organization, building bipartisan support in these two first-ever statewide comprehensive “anti-corruption” measures, is also working with volunteers in San Francisco to put a proposition on the city’s election ballot to restrict lobbyist tactics, in 2014 helped achieve the nation’s first municipal campaign and ethics reform measure in Tallahassee, Fla., and is eyeing state campaigns to reel in the influence of anonymous big money in politics, says Represent.Us Director Josh Silver, who grew up in Ashfield and Shelburne.

“We have a very, very ambitious playbook, but for the moment all eyes are on South Dakota, Washington state and San Francisco, where we’re going up against literally the most deep-pocketed, active political players in the U.S, the Koch brothers,” said Silver, adding that the organization is “decidedly left-right. We are made up of grass-roots liberals and conservatives”

Going national

Working with local volunteers around the country, Represent.Us has already begun planning 2018 campaigns on “not only money in politics-related reforms on ballots in several states, but also gerrymandering reform and open primary/ranked-choice voting reforms, so independent and third-party candidates can run without being brandished as spoilers,” says Silver. “It would give people more choice, and also de-polarize politics.”

Rather than talking about “campaign finance reform,” Represent.Us has reframed the key issue as one of fighting corruption, which resonates better with voters in so-called red states. And rather than non-binding voter resolutions, its focus is on changing the law and “transforming how politics works in real life,” says Silver, who also co-founded and directed FreePress.net to support internet neutrality and fight media monopolies.

As coalition opposed to the South Dakota initiative, backed by the Kochs as well as the state’s business interests, have framed it as a “scheme” by politicians “attacking our wallets (for) more TV ads, more junk mail and more robocalls during dinner.”

Silver, who cut his teeth on campaign finance reform working on an Arizona public-funding law in 1998, says polls now show that provisions like campaign funding transparency and ethics reforms are supported by conservatives and liberals alike nationwide, but he acknowledges that public campaign funding — soundly shot down in Missouri and Oregon in 2000, after being approved in Arizona and Maine — is the “least popular” element and may “create too much drag politically.”

“We think we can pass comprehensive laws that include public funding at the ballot,” he says. “That’s the theory, and we’re testing that this year. If we win, that’s going to spark a domino effect across the country with comprehensive laws like this moving forward in ballot initiatives. If we lose, it proves that public funding cannot pass via ballot initiative. That just means we’ll be moving proposals without public funding in them.”

Closer to home

In Massachusetts, where voters overwhelmingly approved a “Clean Elections” law calling for public financing of campaigns in 1998 ballot referendum but where implementation was snuffed out by the Legislature’s annual budget-making process, Silver said, Represent.Us hopes to introduce comprehensive campaign finance reform that would depend instead on a tax-credit system “immune to that meddling.”

Randy Kehler of Colrain, who worked on campaign finance reform from 1987 to 2001, recalls, “We were sort of like a voice in the wilderness when we started. I think the issue has come into its own more now.”

Meanwhile, John Bonifaz, the Boston-based lawyer with roots in Conway, is co-founder and president of Free Speech For People, which has been working to enact a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United case and also to challenge the Speech Now decision that same year, which gave birth to Super PACs.

Already, 17 states — including Massachusetts — and more than 675 cities and towns have gone on record calling for such a constitutional amendment declaring that corporations do not have the constitutional rights of people and allowing Congress and the states to set overall limits on campaign spending, including prohibitions on corporate and union spending in the political process. The House Joint Resolution was introduced in Congress last year by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

“I think we’ll continue to see that momentum,” said Bonifaz. “Where we’ve seen states put it on the ballot, like Montana and Colorado, there’s been 75 percent support across the board among Republicans, Democrats and independents. This is clearly an issue that has cross-partisan appeal.”

He adds, “That’s not to say the amendment is going to pass two-thirds of Congress tomorrow … But if continued work in the states goes on, we’re going to see more pressure put on members Congress from those states to push for this amendment in Congress.”

Also, with the current Supreme Court vacancy, Bonifaz says, “We now have a transformative moment where we see the potential for dramatic change in the way the court has viewed these issues of money and politics, the Citizens United ruling and the Speech Now ruling in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, which released super PACs into our elections.”

Bonifaz has been helping create test cases that will bring before the Supreme Court that 2010 decision, which found Federal Election Campaign Act campaign contribution limits violate free speech.

“There are obstacles to all these efforts,” he said, especially from entrenched politicians who don’t want to create competition for their positions, but also from “people thinking they can’t make this change. But I think more and more, people are rising up and willing to fight that cynicism and demand their democracy back.”

On the Web: Represent.Us

Freespeechforpeople.org