“I had a college degree, a decade of experience, and the only job I could get was making $8 an hour at the local convenience store in my neighborhood,” Maine state Rep. Diane Russell (D) said in January, recalling her unlikely path to public office. “I have no business being in politics. I was not groomed for this. But thanks to public financing, I have a voice. And thanks to public financing, a gal who takes cash for the convenience store for selling sandwiches can actually talk about the stories that she’s learned from behind the counter.” Russell was speaking at an event on the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling that set off an avalanche of money in politics. After her state’s “clean elections” system propelled Russell into office in 2008, she quickly became a force in Maine politics. Her progressive record of defending voting rights and workers, for example, led the Nation to recognize her as its “Most Valuable State Representative” in 2011.
In the era of super PACs and outsized corporate influence in politics, Russell is an inspiring success story — and not the kind we’re used to hearing when it comes to campaign finance. Instead, we hear about the Koch brothers, who plan to spend nearly $1 billion in the months leading up to the 2016 election. We hear about Republican presidential wannabes lining up to court billionaire casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, in what has come to be known as “The Sheldon Primary.” And if we’re paying close attention, we hear about places like North Carolina, where Koch ally Art Pope has essentially bought the Republican Party, as well as a stint as the state budget director. Incidentally, Pope used that lofty position to attack the state’s public financing of judicial elections, opening the door for his political network to exert even more influence on the process.
These stories are undeniably important, as are the long-term battles to overturn the Citizens United decision, pass a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform and eliminate the corrosive influence of money in politics. But there is another story being written that deserves our attention, too, in which progressive activists and lawmakers are working to make our elections more democratic — a story less about containing the influence of billionaires and corporations than empowering small donors and unlikely candidates — candidates like Diane Russell.
This story is unfolding at the local and state level across the country in places like Arizona, Connecticut and Maine, where battles are being fought over publicly funded elections. In New York City, the public financing structure offers a 6-to-1 match for donations up to $175, amplifying the power of contributions from middle-class voters. Indeed, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman writes in his new book on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office, the city’s “unusually strong campaign finance laws were a final, and undoubtedly crucial, component of de Blasio’s victory” in 2013. Meanwhile, on the national level, Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.) has introduced the Government by the People Act, which would institute a similar public matching system in federal elections. The legislation boasts an impressive number of supporters, including 144 Democratic members of the House (along with a lone Republican) and a diverse coalition of progressive and labor organizations.
Clean elections and public financing laws are good for democracy. As Sarbanes and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) wrote last year, “We know that if the role of money in our elections were reduced and the level of civility in our politics increased, the result would be the election of more women, more minorities, more young people and more people dedicated to serving the public interest, not special interests.” And, in fact, the numbers show that states with publicly funded elections have a higher percentage of women in office. Moreover, there is broad trans-partisan support for laws that empower ordinary citizens to take control of their political system and reduce the influence of super PACs and mega-donors. According to a poll conducted by the nonpartisan Every Voice, “A specific plan focused on matching small donations with public funds wins 70 percent approval, with over two-thirds support from Democrats and Republicans.”
The obscene amount of money in our politics deserves attention from the media and campaign finance reformers alike. But without some hope — and without more attention to tangible success stories and achievable goals — it is all too easy for cynicism to creep in. It’s time for the media to pay more attention to the positive stories of empowerment through public financing around the country. That’s how people will stay committed to the work of improving our democracy. As Diane Russell put it, “I am not beholden to anybody but the people I represent. And that is such an empowering thing.”
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