Voters angry about big money's influence in politics organize local movements for complaints

Published on Monday, 18 April 2016 07:17 - Written by Matea Gold, The Washington Post

For Pete Gonzalez, the turning point came last year after watching too many episodes of "The Daily Show" skewering politicians for their dependence on rich donors.

"It's clear that money is completely corrupting politics, and we need to step it up," said Gonzalez, a 31-year-old who lives in Coral Gables, Fla.

So last week Gonzalez - an account manager at an insurance brokerage - dressed up as a $100 bill and led a rally in front of the Miami-Dade County Government Center, calling on the Dade County Commission to require local candidates to disclose more about their backers.

"I went from apathetic to community organizer," Gonzalez said.

A backlash against monied interests in politics that has buoyed the White House bids of Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is reverberating far beyond this year's presidential race. The huge sums swamping campaigns have prompted voters to appeal to city halls and state capitols, hoping to curb the influence of wealthy donors in their communities.

Sunday marked one of the biggest public protests against big money, drawing thousands to the Mall. But similar, if smaller, efforts have been playing out across the country on a regular basis.

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In Chicago, Sharon Sanders, a retired special-education teacher, is working to try to build support for a small-donor matching program for city elections. In Cocoa, Fla., Melissa Martin, a former Marine Corps staff judge advocate, is urging her five-member city council to pass a resolution supporting anti-corruption legislation. In Seattle, high school biology teacher Jonathan Tong helped collect thousands of signatures for a November state ballot initiative supporting a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court's Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, which made it easier for corporations and wealthy donors to spend unlimited funds on politics.

"I wanted to stand up for my students and my two high school-age daughters," said Tong, who said he devotes his free time to the issue. "I want them to have the democracy that they deserve."

The focus of the community efforts vary. Some are pursuing resolutions condemning Citizens United, hoping to amass enough opposition in the states to be able to eventually secure a a constitutional amendment. Others in states such as Arizona and Arkansas are pushing for fuller disclosure of campaign contributions and stricter ethics rules for lobbyists.

The growing number of local campaigns means that politicians at every level of government are contending with voters who believe their voices are being drowned out by those with more resources.

"People are talking about it," said Chris Narveson, the town chairman of New Glarus, Wis. - population 1,400 - which will vote on an anti-Citizens United resolution in November. "There is even money going into local races that used to be, you just show up and talk. Now you see paid signs going up."

David Bossie, president of Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group that spurred the Supreme Court decision, said President Barack Obama and other Democrats have successfully used "demagoguery" to stir up opposition to the case. The anger is misplaced, he said.

Hedge fund billionaires such as George Soros "and other incredibly wealthy leftists have been participating in the process for a long time, long before the Citizens United decision came along," Bossie said. "That's free speech. My answer to speech I do not agree with is more speech."

But activists trying to reduce the influence of wealthy donors said the ground-level efforts show that there is momentum to change the campaign finance landscape.

"We are seeing lots and lots of people at the local level not waiting for Washington to act, taking matters into their own hands," said David Donnelly, president of the advocacy group Every Voice. "It seems like people have gotten to the point where they are fed up and they are not going to take it anymore."

Much of the organizing is being done by offshoots of national groups such as Common Cause, represent.us and United to Amend, which have seized on increasing voter awareness about money in politics. But there are also independent endeavors, such as in California, where Republican businessman John Cox has spent $1 million trying to get a measure on the ballot in November that would require legislators to wear NASCAR-style logos of their biggest donors.

His team has collected 260,000 signatures - more than half the number required.

"Everyone understands the rich, the big businesses, the labor unions, control politics," Cox said. "What I'm hoping to do is ignite a movement based upon ridiculing the absurdity of this system."

Activists say there is evidence of a groundswell. In Wisconsin, a group of local United to Amend supporters have spent the past several years taking their anti-Citizens United message from town to town, asking voters to support a resolution calling for the decision to be overturned.

In the 72 communities they have approached, each has passed it by wide margins - including 11 this month. Eventually, the group hopes to build enough local support to place a statewide referendum on the ballot.

"This is going to take a movement as big as suffrage or civil rights," said George Penn, a 64-year-old from Madison who shut down his renewable-energy consultancy in 2012 to focus on the effort full time.

Much of the work is being driven by volunteers new to political activism, such as Ray Spellman, a former tractor dealer and civil engineer, who went door to door in his rural town of Darlington, Wis., gathering the 200 signatures needed to get the measure on the ballot. On April 5, it passed with 81 percent of the vote.

"It's just energized our local community," said Spellman, 65. "No matter anyone's political affiliation or level of activism, they get this at a gut level. Everybody understands money, and they understand that if you or I or a politician take money, you are obligated to the source of that money."

The anti-big-money rhetoric in the presidential campaign has mobilized some new activists, such as Sara Joehnk, 28, who lives outside Phoenix and is working to help get an initiative on the state ballot that would bolster Arizona's public financing system.

"It really was Bernie Sanders who got me interested," Joehnk said.

But for others, the cause has nothing to do with presidential politics.

In Cocoa, Fla., Martin said she was moved to act after realizing that the ethics code she followed in the military was far more stringent than the one that applies to her state and local officials.

"I was a bit appalled by what could happen in government," she said. In between home-schooling her three sons, Martin researched organizations seeking to toughen lobbying rules, and decided to form a local chapter of represent.us.

In November, the 39-year-old political independent went to a public meeting of the Cocoa City Council and asked the members to pass a resolution supporting legislation that would curtail special interests. The council directed city staff to draft a measure, and Martin is hopeful it will come to a vote in the next few weeks.

Her next step: bringing in new people to expand her group's reach.

"The main thing to ensure that the movement is nonpartisan," Martin said. "This is really an American thing."

Author Information:

Matea Gold is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, covering money and influence.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Matea Gold · NATIONAL, POLITICS · Apr 18, 2016 - 5:19 AM