Jamie Raskin beat big money to become the Democratic nominee from a Maryland congressional district that is now all but certain to elect a “qualifications matter more than money” representative to the US House of Representatives this fall. And when he gets to the Capitol next January, Raskin promises to amplify and extend the struggle for democracy in America.
That’s a tall order, to be sure.
But Raskin, a Maryland state senator and an American University professor of constitutional law, the First Amendment and the legislative process, has been at the center of struggles for voting rights, campaign finance reform, and fair elections for decades. Now, having won an intense primary contest to replace Congressman Chris Van Hollen (who on Tuesday won the Democratic nomination for Maryland’s open US Senate seat), he is ready to take the struggle in the Capitol.
Raskin will arrive with fresh inspiration to make the fight. Before Tuesday’s Maryland primary, he was outspent 6-to-1 by a businessman who steered more than $12 million into the race. A second candidate also appears to have outspent Raskin. Yet the passionately progressive legislator prevailed with a campaign that relied on more than 11,000, mostly small, donors and with a declaration that “an election is not an auction.”
Raskin is not alone in advancing this votes-must-matter-more-than-dollars message. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has made it central to his small-donor funded presidential run. And Congress has a number of rock-solid champions of democracy—including ardent Raskin backers such as Michigan Congressman John Conyers and Wisconsin Congressman Mark Pocan. But no one would argue that either chamber has a sufficient contingent of advocates for the principle that government should be “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
If as expected he wins in November (in a 2-1 Democratic district against a Ted Cruz-backing right-wing Republican) Raskin will not merely increase the numbers for the House’s real-reform caucus. The veteran legislator, whom The Washington Post recognizes as the Maryland Senate’s “constitutional authority,” will add what Pocan refers to as “tremendous energy and tremendous intellect” to the fights to absolutely guarantee voting rights and fair elections.
Raskin said when he announced his candidacy that he was making the race “because America needs effective progressive leadership to renew the momentum of popular democracy in America.” That is something he had provided for years on the outside of Congress, as a constitutional law professor who has represented Greenpeace and the Service Employees International Union and high-school students fighting for the freedom to talk about LGBT rights. He has a long history of building unprecedented coalitions and waging difficult legal and legislative battles on behalf of progressive ideals. In the Maryland Senate, he has earned especially high marks for leading historic floor fights to establish marriage equality, to abolish the death penalty, and to preserve civil rights and liberties.
It is clear that Raskin works well within the legislative process, and within the broader movements that seek to influence legislatures. (He ran this year with endorsements from the Sierra Club, major unions such as the National Education Association and National Nurses United, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Progressive Democrats of America, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus Progressive Action PAC.)
But if the process does not work, if the framework for achieving justice in insufficient, Raskin seeks to forge new frameworks—by forging alliances with grassroots movements, by opening up debates, by campaigning to amend the US Constitution.
“My ambition is not to be in the political center. My ambition is to be in the moral center,” Raskin said when he announced his candidacy last year in Takoma Park, Maryland.
Then he added a line that sums up his vision: “We will get the political center to move to us.”
Raskin is serious about this. He has a record of wading into fights at a point when most Democrats, and even most progressives, are still standing on the sidelines. As a longtime advocate on voting rights issues, he has been in the forefront of the fight for the franchise. After Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made a point of emphasizing—during the Bush v. Gore arguments in December 2000—that there is no federal constitutional guarantee of a right to vote for president, Raskin responded by making the case that the Constitution should be amended to clearly establish just such a protection. When few in Congress were willing to take the issue up, Raskin was arguing that “it is time for American progressives to engage in serious constitutional politics on behalf of the right to vote.”
With the group FairVote, he has proposed and advanced a number of proposals aimed at assuring that every vote counts—and that every vote is counted. Among these is the “National Popular Vote” proposal for an interstate compact to guarantee that the presidency goes to the candidate who receives the most popular votes nationwide.
After the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision cleared the way for corporations to spend as they chose to influence elections, Raskin was among the very first to object. And he did so in the right way, by advocating for a constitutional amendment to undo the damage done by the High Court.
At a point when most Democrats in Washington were talking around the issue, and avoiding the hard reality of what needed to be done, Raskin wrote that “an amendment to allow for reasonable regulation of campaign expenditures and contributions would empower Congress to return corporations to the economic sphere.”
Today, close to 700 communities and 16 states have formally asked Congress to act. And action will be necessary because, as Raskin noted several years ago in an article for The Nation: “We live in what will surely come to be called the Citizens United era, a period in which a runaway corporatist ideology has overtaken Supreme Court jurisprudence. No longer content just to pick a president, as five conservative Republicans on the Rehnquist Court did in 2000, five conservative Republicans on the Roberts Court a decade later voted to tilt the nation’s entire political process toward the views of moneyed corporate power.”
That’s bold language.
But, certainly, not too bold.
As someone who knows a thing or two about constitutional law, Raskin understands that “A constitutional amendment to correct these distortions may seem impossible now, but all amendments seem impossible until they become inevitable.”