Leonard Pitts Jr.: Money in politics undermining nation

04/14/2014 12:00 AM

04/11/2014 5:28 PM

This is a column about campaign-finance reform.

And your eyes glazed over just then, didn’t they?

That’s the problem with this problem. Americans know that government truly of, by and for the people is unlikely if not impossible so long as the system is polluted by billions of dollars in contributions from corporations and individual billionaires. Half of us, according to Gallup, would like to see public financing of campaigns; nearly 80 percent want to limit campaign fundraising.

And yet somehow, the issue seems to lack a visceral urgency in the public mind. William Ostrander understands that all too well.

“There are people that will go nuts over the Second Amendment,” he said in a telephone interview. And not to diminish the importance of self-defense, he added, but “when you look at the practical character of it, what’s going on in campaign-finance corruption is far more injurious to their lives, their well-being and their children’s lives than anything most people have had to deal with with the Second Amendment.”

Ostrander is a farmer in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and the director of something called Citizens Congress 2014. Its members include a schoolteacher, a small-business man, a firefighter, a general contractor and a doctor – your basic average Americans – who have collectively invested thousands of volunteer hours to set up a summit (June 2-5) of lawyers, lawmakers, academics, advocacy groups and other experts.

Their aim: to brainstorm strategies and craft a plan of action to eliminate the influence of big money in politics.

Quixotic? Perhaps. But Ostrander said he has commitments from a number of high-profile individuals including: former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig; and Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission who is probably best known for his appearances on “The Colbert Report,” where he helped Stephen Colbert set up a super PAC.

We should wish them success. Because truth is, while many of us watch with eyes glazed, democracy is being stolen right out from under us. Consider that the U.S. Supreme Court recently issued a ruling further loosening the limits on campaign donations. Consider the unseemly way four presumptive presidential aspirants ran to Las Vegas to kiss Sheldon Adelson’s ring when the billionaire casino magnate announced he was looking for candidates to support. Consider what billionaire Tom Perkins said in February: Only taxpayers should have the right to vote and the rich should have more votes.

We’re already moving in that direction. As new voter-ID laws and other restrictive measures cull the electorate of poor people, brown people and young people, as the Supreme Court further tilts the playing field toward the moneyed and the privileged, the notion of one person, one vote, the idea that we each have an equal say in the doings of our government, comes to feel … quaint if not downright naive.

So the politician, though she came to office determined to do right by her constituents, finds she must pay greater attention to the needs of a large donor than to those of the people she was elected to represent. And you get paradoxes like the one last year, where, although 91 percent of us wanted criminal background checks for all gun sales, somehow that didn’t happen, didn’t even come close.

It’s not the politicians’ fault, said Ostrander. “There are some really great people in Congress, honestly. It’s the system that’s broken. The system needs an intervention.”

And that won’t happen until or unless more Americans wake up from their stupor and recognize this as the clear and present danger it is. Ever feel your government doesn’t represent you?

That’s because it doesn’t.

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