Opinion

Washington needs more people like Senator Warren Rudman (+video)

Sen. Rudman, who passed away last week, was perhaps best known for his legislation on deficit reduction. But he also fought tirelessly for campaign finance reform and citizen-funded elections. And he was willing to work across the aisle and stand up to his own Republican party to do it.

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Republicans weighing the direction their party should take after the election would do well to consider the example of one of their own: the late great Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, who passed away last week. I was privileged to work with him during the final, lesser-known chapter of his distinguished public service career, and to observe a different kind of statesmanship from what we're accustomed to seeing on Capitol Hill.

Writing in this publication Rudman called himself an “old-fashioned sentimentalist” because he believes that the US Senate could still be a place where “sober-minded men and women with a hankering for public service came together to listen to different points of view and forge common solutions to the nation's tough problems.”

He saw a Congress “stuck in the mud of strident partisanship, excessive ideology, never-ending campaigns,” and he was deeply concerned that the “bridge-builders” in Washington had all but left the scene.

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But Senator Warren Rudman did more than just bemoan the Washington state of affairs. He worked hard to set things right while serving on Capitol Hill, and continued his efforts long after he had returned to private life. While he is rightly remembered for his legislative accomplishments as senator, especially on deficit reduction, there is a little-known aspect of his post-Senate career that bears special note. 

Taking a page from the maverick Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, Rudman devoted a portion of his final years to challenging the Washington power establishment – and especially his own party – to pass campaign finance reform. Writing in The Washington Post in 2010, he cited decades of Republican leadership on reform, beginning with Roosevelt's own claim in 1904 that “contributions by corporations…for any political purpose should be forbidden by law,” and called on his fellow Republicans to “return to our roots [and] enact the only real and lasting solution I know: citizen-funded elections.”

He was not afraid to chide his party for the appearance, and sometimes the fact, of siding with moneyed interests – a position he claimed the Supreme Court had already taken in Citizens United – instead of with the American people. Indeed, the former New Hampshire Attorney General challenged the very notion of corporate-funded political speech that Republicans had largely accepted: “Supreme Court opinion notwithstanding, corporations are not defined as people under the Constitution, and free speech can hardly be called free when only the rich are heard.”

To put his ideas in practice, he campaigned for Sen. John McCain for president in 2000 and 2008 (and other reform-minded Republicans along the way) and co-chaired the bipartisan group for which I worked, Americans for Campaign Reform, since 2005. That he was invited to join the organization by John Rauh, its Democratic founder whom he had helped defeat for Senate in 1992, did not detract a whit from his resolve.

Nor was he unwilling to revise his own positions in light of new evidence, although it benefitted him nothing – a trait not often found in politics. Testifying opposite his former Senate colleague and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky in the Senate Rules Committee in 2007, Rudman cited the exponential rise in campaign costs and outside influence as reasons for his newfound support of citizen-funded Fair Elections, an alternative funding system piloted in the states that replaced private money with small donations and matching public funds for qualifying candidates.

“Times have changed and so have I,” said the well-known budget hawk about the need to contain the undue influence of special interest groups through public funding. Mr. McConnell was not impressed.

Rudman’s reasons for supporting citizen-funded elections were straightforward and reveal, in part, what I came to know as his no-nonsense Yankee approach to public service. “A healthy part of the American dream has always been the notion that anyone can hold public office,” Rudman testified. “Increasingly, candidates' qualifications are being measured by the size of their wallet, not the strength of their ideas. Public funding would once again allow Americans from every walk of life, and income level, to contemplate public service.”

Whether the Republicans or President Obama will take up campaign finance reform after a $6 billion election featuring record amounts of secretive outside spending remains to be seen. But the cost of continued delay, according to Rudman, was clear: The influx of private money in politics, he testified, “distorts our nation's agenda, undermines our democratic values, drives voters away from the polls and limits electoral competition.”

As a young policy director with Americans for Campaign Reform in 2007, I had the privilege of accompanying Rudman to that Senate hearing and assisting him recruit dozens of other Republican and Democratic elected officials to the cause. His steely resolve opposite Sen. McConnell made a strong impression. So did his warmth and good humor, his encouragement that I heed the call of public service, and his modest manner, which lacked the pretensions I am accustomed to finding in the corridors of power. Even when illness moved to center-stage in recent years, he refused to step down.

For the sake of his memory – and for the country to which he dedicated a lifetime of public service – let us hope that Warren Rudman was not just an “old fashioned sentimentalist” for placing public service ahead of politics.

Daniel Weeks is past president and current policy adviser at Americans for Campaign Reform. He is writing a book on democracy and poverty in America

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