Mark Hanna, the senator from Ohio, and William McKinley's campaign manager, once said, "There are two important things in politics. One of them is money and ... I can't remember what the other one is."
In Congress and state legislatures, both sides of the aisle are awash with special-interest money. At one time, people from different parts of the political spectrum thought that the other side was wrong. Now, they think that the other side is evil. This accelerating partisanship is in part a byproduct of how we fund campaigns. Elected officials are not free actors. All too often they are beholden to big contributors not in the room. Sometimes, they can't work with the other side, even if they want to; at other times, both parties are funded by the same big donors and collude against the general public's welfare.
The money bends policy toward the interests of wealth, and undermines the moral basis for our government. The amount of real dollars spent on campaigns is increasing at an exponential rate, and people are becoming more cynical and are withdrawing their support from the political process. A recent poll published by The Brennan Center indicates that 25 percent of respondents are less likely to vote because of dismay over the extent to which SuperPacs are taking away their power. By not voting, people increase the power of money. Our political system is in a self-reinforcing, negative, downward death spiral.
None of this is new. Many see the problem, but they don't know what to do.
I have a solution to suggest. It springs directly from my own experience, so I will outline that briefly.
In 1992 I ran for, and was elected to, the Colorado Legislature without taking contributions from special-interest PACs. I walked door to door and talked to people about how the way we finance campaigns in the United States is destructive to our democratic process.
I ran seven more elections this way and was rewarded by getting votes from across the political spectrum. In 2000, I was elected to the State Senate in a district that had never previously been held by a member of my party. We took the majority in the Senate by one vote.
I am no longer in the legislature. By 2009, I had served as many terms in the legislature as Colorado law allowed. But my experience running for office and observing the American political influence auction from the inside has made me believe that a necessary component of reform is for people to use their power to support candidates who do not take corrupting special-interest cash.
This approach will work because candidates want only one thing.
And it isn't money.
Candidates want to get elected. Right now, they think that the way to get elected is to raise as much money as they can - from whatever source - and put mindless name-recognition ads on television. If acceptance of special-interest money became stigmatized, and voters supported candidates who did not take the money, candidates would change their behavior.
Voters care about this issue. They would rather support candidates who do not take PAC contributions, but they don't know they have the choice.
CleanSlateNow.org, a new web site, lists and encourages support for candidates who do not take special-interest PAC contributions. There are Democrats, Republicans and minor party candidates on the list.
When I won my seat in the Colorado General Assembly in 1992, I was the only candidate elected to the General Assembly who turned down PAC contributions. Now there are seven, and others are running this cycle.
We should remind Mark Hanna's ghost that the other important thing in politics is people. It is only by using the power of people that we can defeat the power of money.
Check out CleanSlateNow.org. Support this organization and the candidates on the list who do not take special-interest PAC contributions. It is a path to change.
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