Earlier this year, a group of a thousand well-meaning folks set out to tackle arguably the biggest problem in politics: how big money from the superrich and special-interest groups is tilting democracy.
They failed. One of the main reasons sums up why politics feels stuck in such a rut: They didn’t have enough money to buy their anti-big-money measure onto the ballot.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” says Jim Street, the former Seattle City Council member who was helping the campaign for Initiative 1329. It sought to limit the blitz of spending by wealthy mega-donors and others unleashed by the Citizens United ruling and other cases.
“It’s true that if we had gotten a big donor, we would have made it,” Street said. “There’s a contradiction there that is maddening.”
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Instead, the all-volunteer signature-gathering effort fell short, collecting about 150,000 signatures (247,000 are needed).
You know that Margaret Mead quote that’s in almost every political-campaign headquarters, the one that goes “never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world?” If Mead were around today she might add: “Plus you need a half-million bucks. Minimum.”
As usual this year, the initiative measures that have raised $500,000 or more, from a few wealthy donors or special-interest groups, are on track to qualify for voters’ ballots in November. The ones that didn’t, won’t. The money typically is used to pay signature-gatherers $1 to $3 per signature.
Initiative 1329 sought to put Washington on the record as favoring a constitutional amendment saying that “money is not speech.” The idea was that eventually Congress might be allowed to reinstate campaign-contribution limits and disclosure rules, if it wanted. Previous laws limiting political spending were struck down by the Supreme Court, causing unreported “dark” money flowing though so-called super PACs to soar.
“The point we were making is that big money can be critically damaging to democracy, especially in the way it creates an uneven playing field,” Street said. “So to fall short in part due to the money issue … it’s the kind of thing that makes citizens disillusioned about their politics.”
The disillusionment is reaching unprecedented levels. Did you see the recent headlines that only 7 percent of Americans now have confidence in Congress? That’s the lowest figure ever recorded, not only for Congress but for any institution in American society. Seven percent is less than the number that want America to be a Communist country (11 percent).
(Aside: Who are these 7 percent saying “heckuva job you’ve done lately, Congress?” The 1 percent plus their relatives?)
The wash of money through politics is hardly the only reason for Congress’ poor image (the constant management-by-crisis hasn’t helped.) Nor does money always trump — earlier this month the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, lost his seat despite spending more at steakhouses than his opponent did on his entire campaign. But as the big money gets bigger, it can feed a sense there’s nothing you can do to change anything, Street said.
“It’s corrosive,” Street said. “That’s why you see those dismal poll numbers at the national level. People feel that system is fundamentally rigged.”
It’s true that all the action lately in politics seems to be bubbling at the bottom, often all the way down at the city level. It’s as if people have given up on the national government to do anything.
Street said his group may try an initiative to the Legislature next year. Those get months longer to collect signatures, making an all-volunteer, low-money approach theoretically possible.
“I’m 72 years old, and I don’t know if anything’s going to change while I’m around,” he said. “But we have to keep working at it. Cheer up, man!”
Or just bring your checkbook. Because it looks like it’s going to take some serious money to get the serious money out of politics.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org