Most Americans recognize money in politics to be a pressing issue, but no one understands it quite like the candidates running for office to try and change our campaign finance system.
In a candidate forum yesterday at Netroots Nation, moderator and People For the American Way Executive Vice President Marge Baker led panelists – Maine U.S. Senate candidate Shenna Bellows, South Dakota U.S. Senate candidate Rick Weiland, Wisconsin U.S. House of Representatives candidate Kelly Westlund, and former California Secretary of State candidate Derek Cressman – in a lively discussion of the role of money in politics in the 2014 elections.
Baker kicked off the discussion by noting both the magnitude of outside money flooding into the 2014 elections as compared to earlier elections, as well as the public will to quell this tide. She pointed out that nine in ten voters want to see their elected officials take action to fix our country’s money in politics problem.
The candidates began by telling the audience why they were inspired to make money in politics a central issue for their campaigns. Shenna Bellows, who said that her father was a carpenter and that her family did not have electricity or running water during her childhood, noted that “people like me” – those not from wealthy backgrounds – don’t often run for public office. This fact, she pointed out, contributes to the creation of laws tilted in favor of big business. Rick Weiland echoed that idea, and said that he believes money in politics is the number one issuing facing our country. For Kelly Westlund, the full weight of our country’s money in politics problem hit home for her when she approached her party about running for office and was asked whether she would be able to raise a quarter of a million dollars in three weeks. And Derek Cressman said that he was drawn to the opportunity of using the bully pulpit of a political office like secretary of state (or as Baker added, the platform of a being a candidate for that political office) to get support for measures like Proposition 49, a ballot initiative in California asking Congress to amend the Constitution to overturn cases like Citizens United that will now be on the ballot in the state in November.
Panelists also talked about fighting the cynicism and despair that can surround the issue of big money in politics for voters. Cressman said that while Americans already understand that this is a major problem, they are also eager to support solutions. He underscored the overwhelming grassroots energy around the issue. A number of panelists highlighted the importance of “connecting the dots” between money and policy – drawing the links for voters between progress on the issues they care most about and the creation of a political system not dominated by corporations and the super-rich. Multiple panelists also shared stories of the power of small dollar donors. For Bellows, a full half of the contributions her campaign receives are $6 or less. She lifted up the example of former senator and progressive hero Paul Wellstone, who she noted was outraised seven-to-one but still won his race.
As the panel wrapped up, panelists underscored the importance of pushing for a range of complimentary solutions to our money in politics problem, from the constitutional amendment now moving through the Senate to disclosure legislation to small-donor financing initiatives. As Westlund put it, it’s not enough to recognize the problems. We have to fight for solutions and get the right people at the table so that we can change the system and make sure the government’s policies reflect the will of the people.
Watch a video of the panel here: