Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.
“I had a college degree, a decade of experience, and the only job I could get was making $8 an hour at the local convenience store in my neighborhood,” Maine state Representative Diane Russell (D) said in January, recalling her unlikely path to public office. “I have no business being in politics. I was not groomed for this. But thanks to public financing, I have a voice. And thanks to public financing, a gal who takes cash for the convenience store for selling sandwiches can actually talk about the stories that she’s learned from behind the counter.” Russell was speaking at an event on the fifth anniversary of the Citizens United ruling that set off an avalanche of money in politics. After her state’s “clean elections” system propelled Russell into office in 2008, she quickly became a force in Maine politics. Her progressive record of defending voting rights and workers, for example, led The Nation to recognize her as its “Most Valuable State Representative” in 2011.
In the era of super PACs and outsized corporate influence in politics, Russell is an inspiring success story—and not the kind we’re used to hearing when it comes to campaign finance. Instead, we hear about the Koch brothers, who plan to spend nearly $1 billion in the months leading up to the 2016 election. We hear about Republican presidential wannabes lining up to court billionaire casino kingpin Sheldon Adelson, in what has come to be known as “The Sheldon Primary.” And if we’re paying close attention, we hear about places like North Carolina, where Koch ally Art Pope has essentially bought the Republican Party, as well as a stint as the state budget director. Incidentally, Pope used that lofty position to attack the state’s public financing of judicial elections, opening the door for his political network to exert even more influence on the process.
These stories are undeniably important, as are the long-term battles to overturn the Citizens United decision, pass a constitutional amendment on campaign finance reform and eliminate the corrosive influence of money in politics. But there is another story being written that deserves our attention, too, in which progressive activists and lawmakers are working to make our elections more democratic—a story less about containing the influence of billionaires and corporations than empowering small donors and unlikely candidates—candidates like Diane Russell.
Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.