How quickly the joy fades. Only weeks ago, reformers were shouting hosannas because Washington had finally passed the McCain-Feingold bill, banning that nasty stuff called “soft money”–the unlimited sums of virulently corrupting campaign donations that corporations and others make in order to buy government favors.
But even as the joyous trill of the hosannas reverberated across the land, the fine-print loopholers were scrambling to scuttle the ban. And lo, along came the scurrilous, anti-reform members of the Federal Election Commission to do the dirty deed. In a series of perverse decisions, the six commissioners have ruled that–hocus pocus!–while national parties cannot take soft money, other entities set up by the national parties can. In other words, the party money-grubbers are banned from putting these corrupting funds in their front pockets, but they can sew huge, new, FEC-approved back pockets into their organizational trousers and fill them with all the soft money they can grab. As Lily Tomlin has noted, “No matter how cynical you get, it’s almost impossible to keep up.”
Tarheels Show the Way
This is why some recent doings in North Carolina are so encouraging and important. Last month, after a 34-to-12 vote in the State Senate and a squeaker 57-to-54 vote in the House, North Carolina took a step toward a little less corruption in its politics and a little less cynicism among its people.
The vote was on the Judicial Campaign Reform Act, which makes public funding available to candidates for the state Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. The governor has signed the bill, so the Tarheelers have become the first state to provide full public financing for top judgeship races. Under the new law, candidates who meet minimal qualifications and who agree to strict fundraising and spending limits can get up to $137,000 in public funding for their primary elections and up to $600,000 for the general election. This is expected to cost the state a total of only about $3.5 million per election cycle, and it’ll be financed in part by a voluntary $50 add-on to the annual licensing fees paid by lawyers.
Amazingly, this has received practically no national media attention, even though it is the most sweeping judicial reform America has had in years. Not only does public financing actually succeed in removing corrupt money from the electoral process, but an even more lasting result is that regular people can contend for office again, since they have access to a pool of money that can help make their candidacies competitive. Judgeships are a good place to start. As in legislative and executive races, judicial elections have become swamped with big money, resulting in For Sale signs being draped over the scales of justice. Eighty-five percent of the state judges in our country stand for election, and in the 2000 cycle candidates raised more than $45 million to fill those benches–twice as much as was spent in 1994. This year’s elections will set new records.
The problem is not in electing judges but in allowing the elections to be financed by insurance companies, HMOs, trial lawyers, polluters, bankers and others with cases before the judges. Here in my state of Texas, for example, it is not unheard of (or illegal) for a sitting judge to take a campaign check from a party in a lawsuit while the suit is being tried! Not that this would impinge upon anyone’s impartiality, of course.
North Carolinians had not experienced anything quite this gross, but the climate was still right for a public-financing flower to bloom. Money certainly plays a tainting role in the state’s general politics, and reformers had been making a concerted effort since the mid-1990s to expose that role. By 1999 an umbrella group calling itself North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections convinced nearly a third of all legislators to co-sponsor a bill offering “voter-owned” funding in legislative and executive branch races. But the bill met stiff resistance from legislative leaders and soon stalled.
All movements need victories to spur them onward, and this one decided in 2001 that instead of choking on total reform, it would bite off the judiciary chunk. The clean-election coalition expanded its membership to more than forty groups, signed up 200 mayors for public financing and began recruiting prominent attorneys, political donors and former judges to the cause. Led by Democracy South, the Center for Voter Education, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, the reformers hit the road to activate grassroots support. In the past year they’ve held more than a dozen training workshops for community leaders, conducted forty-five town meetings, organized volunteer groups in sixty of the state’s 100 counties and maintained a statewide “action alert” list that could react quickly and put pinpoint pressure on the legislature.
What the Eighth Graders Saw
Passage was the culmination of thousands of people taking small steps. In the end, the public overwhelmingly got on board the reform train (including Republican voters, 70 percent of whom were found to favor the public financing option, according to a poll by a GOP firm). Even most judges supported it, since it will get them out of the dreadful money chase. Washington insiders like to tell themselves that ordinary folks don’t give a damn about how elections are financed, but those jaded ones should have seen the picture when Governor Mike Easley signed the bill in the old House chamber in Raleigh. The room was packed with reformers and legislators, young radicals and old Republicans, a few gaping tourists and a gallery filled by eighth graders who had come especially to see this small step forward in the long battle to reclaim the people’s government. “It’s just the first step,” says Erin Byrd of North Carolina Voters for Clean Elections (919-838-8683). “We’re a big movement and we’re going to keep going until we can win public financing of all our state elections.”
This is the beauty of public financing–you don’t have to wait on Washington to do it for you. People of any jurisdiction–state, district or local–can pass it for themselves and make their elections “voter-owned.” It’s percolate-up reform.