By Edward Youngblood, Tribune News Service (TNS)
In 1907 Theodore Roosevelt sent his State of the Union address to Congress with a very important idea: installing a public financing system for political campaigns.
Despite the “R” after his name, Roosevelt would get some strange looks from the Republican leadership of 2015. House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and even my own governor, Maine’s Paul LaPage, are quick to forget that supporting public financing in order to combat corruption was a strongly supported Republican idea.
Here in Maine, support for our clean elections public funding system has been bipartisan since day one. I’m a Republican, I ran my first race using clean elections, and I knew right away that I wouldn’t run any other way. Former U.S. Sens. Alan Simpson, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, and William Cohen, among many others, have supported some measure of public funding to prevent democracy from, well, from what has happened since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
The current GOP leadership in Washington, who support unlimited and unrestricted secret money, doesn’t speak for everyone in the party, and they sure don’t speak for me. There are hundreds of state and local Republican public servants who want to get big money out of politics. We all want to keep our government responsive to the people and out of the hands of too few. Unfortunately, today’s relentless efforts to roll back campaign finance laws send a very different message.
It should be no surprise that millions of Americans believe that average citizens are no longer heard by our government. If we want a government of, by and for the people, we are heading in the wrong direction.
But not in Maine. Despite wrongheaded Supreme Court rulings and misguided policy proposals in Washington, we in Maine know the value of clean elections, and we are organizing in order to strengthen our public funding system. We are on the right path. Instead of allowing the ongoing weakening of our law to further erode participation by candidates, citizens have mounted a new referendum that will restore clean elections.
Recently I was invited to the White House to speak about my state’s experience with clean elections and what the citizens of Maine are doing to fight back against big money in politics. I sat with business leaders, faith leaders, environmentalists, former judges, labor leaders and more, and together we made the case that the president should put democracy reform high on his agenda. The assembled group did not share any particular ideology, but we all agreed that our self-governance requires the opportunity for all Americans to participate, no matter how thick or thin one’s wallet.
It’s true that this is easier to say when you’re not running for office. Neither the president nor I will run for public office again, but most of the Maine legislature and Congress are already thinking about the next campaign. It will take the voices of millions of ordinary Americans to push for clean elections across the country. We all need to speak up and act — we can’t allow the millions of dollars poured in by special interests to silence the voices of the American people.
We have already started. In Maine, volunteers collected more than 85,000 signatures to qualify our clean elections initiative for the ballot. In Missouri, the Secretary of State just announced he’d pursue ending the current unlimited campaign contribution policy. Seattle is likely to pursue small donor campaign finance reform. Tallahassee, Fla., just passed sweeping ethics reforms that will be duplicated in other cities and states soon.
Millions of Americans have signed petitions, and 16 states have called on Congress to overturn Citizens United by ratifying a constitutional amendment. There is a growing movement around the country to reduce the influence of money in politics, and this movement is not going away.
As Obama prepares his own State of the Union address, I hope he will follow Theodore Roosevelt’s footsteps and make a proposal to combat this growing threat to American self-governance. We simply cannot afford to pay the price that big money has put on our democracy. Freedom of speech and participation in government is the right of every American. It is our collective duty — yours, mine, and the president’s — to keep our government free from outside influence. Only when we work together — across parties, across the country — will we keep the government accountable to all the people of the United States of America.
State Sen. Edward Youngblood represents Maine’s 31st senate district. Readers may send him email at email@example.com
Photo: Ervins Strauhmanis via Flickr