Citizens Won't Wait for Washington to Curb Big Donors
Grass-roots effort sprouts to reform political fund-raising
Janice Fine has a dream: She wants to unfurl a huge banner across the Capitol Building emblazoned with a no-nonsense comment on the Senate's ongoing campaign finance reform hearings. "Senator Thompson, Tell the Truth," her message would read. "The Real Scandal Is What's Legal."Skip to next paragraph
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Ms. Fine admits it's unlikely she'll ever make that point - at least not in banner form. But if she and a growing number of grass- roots activists like her get their way, Sen. Fred Thompson (R) of Tennessee and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle will still get the message loud and clear: Americans are prepared to take campaign finance reform into their own hands.
It's not as if Washington is completely missing the point: There's plenty of talk around town about campaign financing. And dozens of lawmakers have introduced a host of reform bills, 70 by one recent count.
But while Washington mostly wrings its political hands, a growing number of Americans outside the Beltway have grown tired of waiting for change from the top down, and are organizing across the political spectrum. Their goals may differ, but from the church pulpit to the corporate suite, new coalitions are forming to change the way big money influences elections.
Their idealism may yet founder on a finance system that has stubbornly resisted reformation. But it's premature to dismiss what may be the vanguard of a profound revolution in American politics.
"People always argue that this an egghead kind of issue, that it doesn't incite passion in the average citizen," says Fine, the organizing director for Northeast Action, a grass-roots group pushing for campaign finance reform in New England and New York. "Well, that's not our experience."
Fine knows what she's talking about. Northeast Action was one of the key organizers behind last year's unprecedented success of a ballot initiative in Maine, which established public funding for candidates who agree to spending limits and reject private money.
Since the initiative passed, activists in several states, including Michigan, Washington, Illinois, and Wisconsin, have organized behind similar efforts. Already in New England, the Vermont legislature has adopted reform measures similar to Maine's. And in Massachusetts, activists - many of them newcomers to the political process - will soon be on the streets gathering signatures to put a Maine-type initiative on the 1998 ballot there.
"These people are really on fire," says Fine, who is involved with the Massachusetts drive, which includes conservatives, progressives, liberals, small businessmen, and welfare mothers. "A great deal of what they believe in rests on our ability to get money out of the way. They know that if we don't pay for it, we don't own it."
In the Midwest, a year-old religious coalition has joined the fray in Chicago and in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Akron, Ohio. Formed by the American Friends Service Committee and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, the Dollars and Democracy Project aims to bring a moral voice to bear on the political debate - and to press home the point that money distorts a deeply held religious conviction that individuals are equal.
"We feel money has given greater voice to some people over others," says Michael McConnell, regional director of AFSC and coordinator of the project. "One of the big legal questions is whether money equals free speech. If that's true, if it does equal free speech in a democracy, then some people are relegated to whispers while others have gigantic loudspeakers. We don't think that's equality or democracy."
At least a few politicians are listening. In late June, Senators John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, co-authors of proposed reform legislation, came to a Dollars and Democracy town hall meeting that drew 500 people. Participants spent two hours asking questions and voicing their concerns. The group is planning similar meetings this fall and may publish a pamphlet for next year's congressional election that details the money raised by each candidate - and who gave it.
Key to grass-roots efforts nationwide is the strategy of coalition-building among different groups - a tack not often taken in past reform efforts. The work tended to focus on campaign finance reform as a "good government" issue, a noble goal that often didn't translate into individual concerns.
But today, even groups like the League of Women Voters are working to connect their reform efforts with interest groups involved in issues such as the environment and health care. The group has just issued a pamphlet, "5 Ideas for Practical Campaign Reform," and in September, will launch a drive in 20 states to bring together a broad coalition of interests.
"We're saying, If you care about your child's education, maybe you'd better think about campaign finance reform," says Becky Cain, president of the League. "Look at who gives money and what legislation gets passed on education. If you're worried about the environment, look at who gives the money to elected officials. Who are the polluters in your community? Is there a connection between the money they give and the legislation that is passed? I bet there is."
Information on who gives what money to whom is increasingly accessible. The Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks money in politics, maintains an extensive web site (www.crp.org). It compiles data filed with the Federal Electoral Commission and details political contributions by donor and recipient. It also includes lists of who had coffee when at the White House.
"Washington is often the last place where things happen," says Paul Hendrie, at the center. "People are searching for reforms. They're tired of waiting for Washington."