It really shouldn’t be this hard.
After all, the preamble to the Constitution does not say, “We the Corporations of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union. …”
Lincoln, in his Gettysburg Address, did not talk about preserving “government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, for the lobbyists. …”
The sheer numbers – average people far outnumber corporate donors and lobbyists – should make the campaign finance bill now stuck in the State Senate a slam dunk, even without the Albany scandals putting more heat on lawmakers to implement public funding to take some of the money out of politics.
Yet backers had to rally Wednesday in the State Capitol to try to embarrass the Senate into passing reforms like those already passed by the Assembly and backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The rally was held at the Capitol’s “Million Dollar Staircase,” so described because it cost that much to build, but whose name could just as easily refer to the money spent to influence the legislators who meet nearby.
That such a rally was still necessary illustrates both the potential of grass-roots action and, according to one longtime activist, its shortcomings as currently practiced.
Jim Anderson was among those on the bus from Buffalo for the demonstration organized by groups ranging from Citizen Action to the Brennan Center for Justice. But Anderson – a Citizen Action state vice president – thinks he knows why the issue is such a hard sell.
He blames the progressive organizations pushing reform for hovering above the fray, talking to each other or to elected officials instead of going into what he calls the “doughnut holes.” Those are the communities of people typically alienated from the political process but who could be mobilized with the right kind of advocacy.
“With the kind of armies they have, it seems like there should be more of a groundswell,” Anderson said.
As an example, he points to local state officials who backed public funding at a hearing a couple of weeks ago held here by members of the Independent Democratic Conference but who, he says, haven’t been out in the community educating people about why the issue matters to them.
“Our local electeds have been basically mum,” Anderson said.
Without pointing fingers, Sam Magavern, co-director of the Partnership for the Public Good, makes much the same point. While noting the difficulty of getting public backing for any kind of spending, he also says campaign finance reform “is not as visceral with people because it’s kind of process-oriented.”
Magavern, who testified at the IDC hearing, said that if backers could sit down and explain the issue to people, more pressure could be mobilized.
But that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood-level communication that’s not happening, Anderson said.
It’s as good an explanation as any for why more people aren’t up in arms about a political system built on legalized bribery. It explains why campaign finance reform never ranks among the top issues when voters are surveyed. It explains why so few make the connection between that issue and every other issue they care about.
And it explains why state senators – including Buffalo’s Mark Grisanti – may feel safe in ignoring a chance to return politics to the people.