With a background in the areas of campaign finance, voter registration, and economic equality, Miles Rapoport is poised to take charge of the venerable watchdog group Common Cause next month.
Rapoport, 64, is a former Connecticut secretary of state who has spent the past 13 years as president of Demos, a New York-based liberal think tank. The son of a teacher and a glass-shop owner in Lynnbrook on New York's Long Island, Rapoport sees himself as a good fit for the presidency he'll assume on March 10.
"I had a strong orientation for social justice from the beginning," he said.
Founded in 1970, Common Cause has spent the past four decades advocating for greater citizen involvement in the political process. It boasts 400,000 members and supporters nationwide, as well as 35 state chapters.
Former president Bob Edgar, a six-term Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania who died last April a month shy of his 70th birthday, was widely regarded as a passionate advocate for a more inclusive politics. Other past presidents include noted campaign finance reform advocate Fred Wertheimer, former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, and Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who chairs the National Governing Board for Common Cause, said in an interview that the board "didn't set out to find another Bob Edgar." Rather, members sought a successor who could bring similar skills to bear while also helping to advance the organization's long-range goals. Reich says that Rapoport is well-suited to the post due to his long record of work on issues of economic inequality and the relationship between money and politics.
Asked to characterize the work that Demos has done during his tenure, Rapoport said the organization has "become an important public policy and advocacy center for an economy where everyone has an equal chance and a democracy where everyone has an equal say." One recent example: the Obama administration's recent use of an executive order to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors — a move proposed by Demos in 2013.
In a way, Rapoport says, he has had three distinct, but related, careers: as a community organizer and activist in Chicago, Boston, and Connecticut; as a legislator and secretary of state in Connecticut; and as a leader in the nonprofit sector.
After two years at Harvard, Rapoport graduated from New York University in 1971 and jumped into community activism, starting with the Citizen Action Program in Chicago and later cofounding Massachusetts Fair Share in Boston.
From 1979 to 1984, he was executive director of the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, which set the stage for a decade in the state General Assembly and four years as secretary of state.
In 1998, Rapoport lost a Democratic primary for the seat vacated by Rep. Barbara Kennelly, D-Conn. He subsequently founded a small firm, DemocracyWorks, to conduct advocacy work in Connecticut. Three years later he was tapped as president of Demos.
Reich, who recused himself from the selection process due to a prior acquaintance with Rapoport, explained that the incoming Common Cause president "is a true reformer in every sense of the word, and he's also an excellent manager."
While Common Cause has mostly focused on political rather than economic issues, Rapoport sees room to expand its mission. He looks forward to continuing his work on voter registration and transparency in elections, but also said the group has a platform to advocate for greater equality of economic opportunity as well as to mobilize Americans on issues of sustainability and environmental protection.
Reich echoed those sentiments, saying Common Cause should "work not only on getting big money out of politics, but also on the reasons why big money is now playing such a prominent role in politics."
In April, Rapoport and his wife Sandra (Sam) Luciano, a former longtime Service Employees International Union employee who now teaches at a community college, will celebrate their 34th anniversary; the couple has two sons and three grandchildren. They currently reside in West Hartford, Conn., but plan to relocate to the Washington area, likely to Virginia, in the coming months.