The most important work in the struggle to address the damage wrought by the United States Supreme Court six years ago Thursday, when it issued the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, is being done at the grassroots.
Millions of Americans have voted, petitioned, marched, rallied and pressured candidates for the House of Representatives and the Senate to support a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision that cleared the way for unlimited corporate spending to influence elections. They have had an impact. Sixteen states and more than 600 communities nationwide have formally asked Congress to initiate the amendment process; Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate have endorsed amendment proposals; President Obama has talked up the idea; and the Democrats who are running for the presidency in 2016 are doing the same.
Still, the money power dominates our politics and our governance to such an extent that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren gets little argument when she says “the system is rigged” to favor the wealthy and powerful who, thanks to awful Supreme Court rulings (of which the Citizens United decision is only the best known), are able to shape debates and the decisions about the essential economic and social issues of our time.
Their dominance is being challenged this year by insurgent presidential campaigns, including that of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the sponsor of an amendment proposal that would “[make] it clear that Congress and the states have the power to regulate money in elections.” But for real reform to come, it will take more than a president and more than the current Congress; indeed, it will take more than an amendment. Sweeping reforms are needed to fix a system that has become toxic to democracy and the public interest.
Zephyr Teachout knows this.
A leader of MAYDAY.US, the national grassroots movement to fight corruption by electing reformers to federal, state, and local posts, Teachout is often compared to Warren—as an academic who has become an engaged and effective activist. The associate professor of law at Fordham University and author of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard University Press, 2014) applauds talk of legal and constitutional interventions. “But,” she explains, “I don’t think we should confuse that with the importance of a public financing system, because [an amendment] just brings us back to 2009—which [wasn’t] necessarily the good ol’ days.”
Teachout dismisses privately funded elections as “insane” and makes an absolute demand for public financing of election campaigns as an essential move to end corruption.
“You’re not an anti-corruption candidate if you’re not talking about public financing,” she told The American Prospect last year.
This blunt discussion of where reform movements can and must go has appeal. When Teachout mounted a Democratic primary challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014, her minimally funded Democratic primary candidacy secured a third of the vote—with Teachout actually winning more than two dozen counties and sweeping the Hudson River Valley.
Now the congressional seat representing the valley is open, with the decision of Republican Congressman Chris Gibson (who has represented the competitive 19th District since 2011) not to seek reelection. Several capable prospects have shown an interest in the race, including Teachout, who is set to make her decision on whether to enter the contest as a Democrat by early next week.
Teachout, who resides in the valley’s Dutchess County, is getting a lot of encouragement from reformers in the region and nationally.
New York’s labor-allied Working Families Party launched an “Urge Zephyr Teachout to run for Congress!” petition drive that declares: “Zephyr lives in Dutchess County and would be a great match for the district. She’s a fearless, reform-minded leader who has stood up to both Republicans and Democrats to challenge the status quo, and a passionate believer in government by and for the people, not just the powerful.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which played a critical role in convincing Warren to run for the Senate in 2012, has launched a “Draft Zephyr Teachout for Congress” campaign that hails Teachout as “a leader in the progressive movement with a long history of challenging power. She has opposed corporate mergers and is a tireless fighter for campaign finance reform.”
Teachout is taking counsel from activists in the district on whether to run.
She might even consider the counsel of veteran reformer, who said last year:
We need real standard-bearers: Candidates who deeply understand that if we don’t deal with this, we can’t deal with almost any other issue. I think it has to do with my own belief that people are motivated by fights and they’re motivated by people like Elizabeth Warren who they see absolutely committed to the fight. It’s a little more confusing when you see people who talk about it but aren’t actually committed to it. So that’s the kind of target races we’re going to be looking at.
The reformer who spoke about the need for “real standard-bearers” in our politics was Zephyr Teachout.