Campaign Reforms need a Declaration of Independents

In this multi-part series, Unite NM Chair Bob Perls will explore different ways we can fix our campaign finance system

Part 1: Introduction

I am a former state representative, unsuccessful democratic candidate for congress and the PRC, an Albuquerque businessman and so ready to tell it like it is when it comes to New Mexico politics.  I have nothing to lose, no more dreams of serving in high office, just incredible disgust for the political system that we have allowed to evolve. No one else to blame…just us…just you…. You want to blame someone?  Look in the mirror.

So I looked in the mirror once, twice, a thousand times and finally realized that the system is not going to change by those on the inside.  Getting a reform minded guy or gal elected is hard enough but getting a critical mass to get anything changed is, at the moment, not possible.  Not without public outcry, not without a revolution. So, there I have said it, this main stream, buttoned down collar guy with two kids, a wife, a mortgage, two dogs, a small business has said the “R” word.  Revolution.

During the 4th of July, while everyone else was around the BBQ, eating too much, I was watching the musical “1776” and eating too much.  And though only a musical, it is a fine activity for Independence Day because it makes us remember that revolution was not easy.  Not the war part, everyone knows war is always hard, always awful. But the decision-making part, the courage, building consensus around an idea that was going to turn the world on its head and very probably jeopardize everyone who signed that document of Independence.  And, a sense that no matter what, we had leaders that would sacrifice everything for the greater good. Now, between needing to raise tens of thousands of dollars per day from the moment they get elected to get re-elected and knowing that the incumbent gets re-elected 97% of the time, why would our leaders be responsive or take risks?  They don’t get rewarded, we don’t reward them, for taking risks.

But here we are, more than 200 years later and closer to a monarchy in the Presidency and a House of Lords in the US Senate than anyone could have imagined.  And New Mexico politics is a microcosm of the same problems we see at the Federal level-only the very rich, the very well connected or the somewhat corrupt can get elected AND survive.

So, we need a revolution and over a series of articles, I plan to describe what that revolution looks like and why you have to help.   will write about campaign finance reform that MUST happen. Don’t talk about education reform, energy policy, foreign policy, lobbyist reform, health care crisis, etc., because NOTHING will EVER change unless we change the way we select and elect our representatives.

Our forefathers could never have imaged a political environment in which wealth and a campaign war chest was the main predictor of success at the ballot box.  Money was never supposed to be a requisite for voting rights or electibility, yet here we are. By and large, the best and brightest do not run for office because they do not want to spend eight hours a day begging for money to run against an incumbent who can outraise them 20:1 with very little effort.

Part 2: Introduction

Hey, bidder, bidder, bidder …you ever been to an auction?  That’s how getting elected works. A candidate saddles up to this or that special interest group and, often without explicitly saying so, sells him or herself to the highest bidder.

On the left it’s the trial lawyers, the teachers unions the pro-choice groups.  On the right it’s the chambers of commerce, oil and gas, the pro-life groups. With these and so many groups there is no room for thoughtful compromise; it is this way or the highway.  So, you vote further to the __________(fill in the blank with “left” or “right”) than you wanted to. Or, as a candidate, you fill out the survey a little differently than your conscious wants to.  At a fundraiser you sound a little more to the ________ (fill in the blank) than you really are, and, all of a sudden you are at the auction.

You can’t get elected without money.  You can’t raise enough from regular folk, so you try to align your believe system with the groups out there who will give money.  See, they won’t give money to thoughtful folks who actually consider that there could be complex gray areas or ambiguities worth contemplating.  In fact, contemplation is an oxymoron in the world of special interests because they get funded and exist to support their narrow dogma. If you don’t fit, you don’t get funded.  If you question, you aren’t a true believer and only true believers get funded and have money to win elections.

So what’s wrong with that?  Well, for starters, most of the public is in the middle somewhere.  Not the wishy-washy middle but the sensible center, neither aligned with nor against the unions or big business or the chamber or the trial lawyers.  But the sensible center does not donate, hold fundraisers, organize hundreds of volunteers or cajole the leadership to give your elected official a committee position where they can actually influence public policy.

What’s the solution?  How do we get off this ride (or out of the auction house?).  We have to separate raising money from getting elected. If we continue to let those buffoons tell us that money equates to freedom of expression, we will continue to get the best candidates money can buy.  Our founding fathers never intended that our candidates, our future office holders, would have to buy their way to be heard by the voting public. The days of getting elected to higher office by standing on a soap box, or the modern equivalent, going door to door, is long gone fueled by the outrageous cost of modern media campaigns.  If you can’t get on the tube, do six mailings, higher professional campaign staff, you can’t get elected.

Public financing of campaigns and free airway time for both political commercials and candidate debates is the only solution that this humble recovering politician can think of.  The argument from the “right”, that no one should have to have their tax dollar used to finance a candidate they don’t believe, in is like saying, “I don’t want my tax dollar used for National Parks because I don’t use them.  America must make decisions based on the greater good and spending a few thousand or even a few million on some yahoos so the best and brightest can get elected is small potatoes compared to carving out billions and trillions of dollars of tax subsidies for the oil companies who don’t need it and thousands of other outrageous federal tax misadventures.

Public financing is not perfect, but it would be a huge step in the right direction.  Imagine if our incumbent US Senators and Congressmen and women did not have to spend half of each day on the phone raising money, going to after hours events raising money, flying around the country raising money.  Imagine if a challenger had the same financial resources the incumbent had so that 97% of the incumbents did not always get re-elected. Imagine if a regular person, not wealthy, not in bed with the right (or left) special interests could actually get elected without mortgaging their house and selling their soul?  This would change the shape of American politics as we know it and radically alter the kinds of bills brought forward, the quality of policy passed and the decisions made at the highest level in our government.

Make no mistake.  Our elected officials follow the money to get elected, to stay elected and to secure employment once they move on.  Nothing is more important to the future of this country’s success than to sever the connection between and money and politics.  The highest bidder ought to be the public and the juicy purchase at the end of the day ought to be an independent, thoughtful, honest politician able to navigate the complex waters of American public policy.  But, it may take a revolution to finally make this come to pass.

The path to the revolution starts with you asking your candidates, especially the incumbents, since they will probably be re-elected, what their stance is on public financing.  If they are for it insist that they make it a top priority. Get them to commit, in writing, that they will sponsor or co-sponsor the bill. Make sure they will fund the effort.  If they are against it, insist that they explain to you what they are going to propose to remove the influence of money on our electoral process. If they don’t understand why this is important, or worse, if they deny this is problem, take a step back, walk away, and commit yourself to work for their defeat or find someone to run against them or run against them yourself.

Anyone who thinks that the system works because all you have to do is vote someone out of office is seriously naïve, seriously corrupt or seriously stupid.  Any way you cut it, the revolution has to start with insisting that naïve, corrupt and stupid people are drummed out of office. In the end, having smart, independent and thoughtful people serving us in public office is much more important than having a person who seems to believe the same things we do but doesn’t get the single most important thing blocking progress in American politics today.  The connection between money and the decisions made by our elected officials.

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