Why the artist behind Obama’s ‘Hope’ poster is helping a fake candidate


(Image courtesy of Represent.us)

Shepard Fairey was full of "Hope" in 2008. This year, he's "Sold."

The street artist behind Barack Obama's iconic "Hope" poster is deploying his talents on the campaign trail once again. His 2014 target: Curtailing the influence of money in politics.

Fairey is teaming up with Represent.us, an advocacy organization trying to curb corruption in politics by overhauling campaign finance laws. The group has been promoting a satirical congressional candidate dubbed "Honest Gil" to draw attention to its cause. Fairey has created a poster of Gil that is a twist on "Hope."

Fairey says he was "super bummed out" by the Supreme Court's landmark "Citizens United" decision that cleared the way for corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums on election advocacy. A lot of different problems in politics, Fairey told Post Politics, "are all sort of byproducts of campaign finance" laws.

The poster is part of Represent.us's move into the race for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. It will support underdog Republican Jim Rubens, a campaign finance reform champion who is competing against former senator Scott Brown for the GOP nomination. The group will sell posters to help pay for its New Hampshire efforts.

It's the latest attempt by a growing coterie of groups trying to elevate the issue of money in politics in the midterm elections. Campaign finance has long been at most a background issue for voters. But the groups have gained surprising traction so far this year, raising large sums of money and attracting national attention.

"Gil" will campaign for Rubens by, well, campaigning against him. It's the same approach Stephen Colbert has used with his faux-conservative commentator character on "The Colbert Report."

Basically, Gil openly runs as a tool of big donors and well-heeled and often secretive groups to expose the problems with electing candidates who are beholden to wealthy donors and secretive groups. Rubens wants to require that all political donations and expenditures are reported and accessible by the public.

Watch this video and the group's strategy will make sense.

Represent.us is joining forces with another group to help Rubens: Mayday PAC, the brainchild of Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig and GOP media strategist Mark McKinnon, is already backing him. The super PAC has raised more than $7.8 million to spend on midterm contests -- surpassing its goal, and surprising many observers with its fundraising success.

Other groups are making similar efforts. CounterPAC, a new super PAC backed by tech entrepreneurs that is pressing candidates to reject spending from groups funded by secret donors, has already run full-page newspaper ads. Every Voice Action, a reboot of Friends of Democracy, is also ramping up.

Activists behind the movement are fighting fire with fire. Or, more accurately, they are fighting money with money, by creating super PACs which can raise and spend unlimited sums of cash. And yes, they get that it's a curious strategy.

"Ironic, we understand," says Mayday PAC. It encourages supporters to "embrace the irony."

Represent.us is pushing the "American Anti-Corruption Act," an idea from former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter. The act would bar lawmakers from taking money from lobbyists who represent industries they regulate, place limits on super PAC donations and require nonprofits who spend large sums on political expenditures to reveal the identity of their big donors.

It's an ambitious push -- especially since there is little evidence to suggest the issue of money in politics has moved voters much in previous elections.

While these groups have raised impressive sums of cash and come up with clever ways to pitch their ideas, the real test will come in November. If they fail to elect like-minded candidates, it'll be a big blow to their long-term goal -- getting enough lawmakers to push legislation in Congress.

The challenge is compounded by the reality that the most high-profile political figure in the country has changed his tune: Once a critic of unlimited spending, President Obama has been raising money for the kind of super PACs he once railed against.

Fairey said he wishes Obama would have been "more outspoken" on campaign finance reform, but acknowledged the problem is also fueled by many other politicians. "It's not just about him," he said of the president.

Another challenge: Many of the congressional candidates who are vocal advocates of reform are, like Rubens, underdogs.

So far, "Gil" has focused his attention in Kentucky. The race between Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) and Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D) is expected to be among the most expensive in history. "Gil" jokes that he has the race "in the bag."

The contest -- a key showdown in the battle for the Senate majority -- perhaps best illustrates the weight of the challenge campaign finance reform advocates face. The winner will be an instant rock star in their political party -- and instantly have a rolodex full of big donors to thank for the victory in 2015.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Politics
Next Story
Katie Zezima · August 10