Why One PAC Is Succeeding at Fighting Money in Politics Where Others Fell Short

Lawrence Lessig’s Mayday PAC is just one in a group of political action committees set up to reduce the influence of money in politics. Here’s why, so far, it’s working.

Harvard law professor and Mayday PAC co-founder Lawrence Lessig
National Journal
Jamie Lovegrove
Aug. 14, 2014, 2:04 a.m.

Since Har­vard law pro­fess­or Lawrence Lessig launched May­day PAC earli­er this year, the “cit­izen-fun­ded, kick-star­ted su­per PAC to end all su­per PACs” has raised more than $7.8 mil­lion from more than 55,000 in­di­vidu­al con­trib­ut­ors to back re­form-minded can­did­ates. The PAC has been fea­tured on the front page of The New York Times, on NPR’s “Plan­et Money” pod­cast, and on just about every ma­jor na­tion­al polit­ic­al news web­site. Mean­while, Lessig has re­lent­lessly pro­moted the idea in cable news ap­pear­ances and op-eds.

Much of the cov­er­age of May­day PAC treats its core idea as though it is en­tirely nov­el. It’s not. May­day is just one of the latest ini­ti­at­ives to join a bur­geon­ing co­ali­tion that is col­lect­ively hack­ing away at what its ad­voc­ates see as big money’s cor­ros­ive ef­fects on demo­cracy.

Groups such as Friends of Demo­cracy PAC, Wolf PAC, Counter PAC, and May­day all hold the same ul­ti­mate goal, and they co­ordin­ate with each oth­er to share ad­vice, mot­toes, ideas, tac­tics, sup­port­ers, and even board mem­bers. But while each PAC is tak­ing on its own unique angle in a mul­ti­front ef­fort to re­duce the in­flu­ence of big money in polit­ics, May­day’s strong lead­er­ship, mes­saging, and em­phas­is on quick res­ults has rendered it the most im­me­di­ately ef­fect­ive at ral­ly­ing pub­lic sup­port.

Cam­paign fin­ance re­form ad­voc­ates have been try­ing to undo Cit­izens United since the mo­ment the de­cision came down from the Su­preme Court in 2010. The first PAC at­tempt came in 2011, when Cenk Uy­gur, host of the pop­u­lar lib­er­al In­ter­net news show The Young Turks, an­nounced the form­a­tion of Wolf PAC at an Oc­cupy Wall Street rally in New York City. Wolf PAC’s goal is to pass a 28th Amend­ment that would over­turn Cit­izens United, spe­cific­ally fo­cused on lob­by­ing state le­gis­latures to form a con­ven­tion of the states.

“Ask­ing Con­gress to fix Con­gress is a little bit like ask­ing can­cer to cure can­cer.”

Ry­an Clayton, Wolf PAC’s ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or, ex­plains that sev­er­al amend­ments””most fam­ously the 17th, which in­sti­tuted the dir­ect elec­tion of sen­at­ors””star­ted with in­di­vidu­al states pres­sur­ing for ac­tion, even­tu­ally com­pel­ling Con­gress to in­ter­vene.

“Ask­ing Con­gress to fix Con­gress is a little bit like ask­ing can­cer to cure can­cer,” Clayton says. “So what we do is, we go down to the state level and talk to state rep­res­ent­at­ives and state sen­at­ors and as­sembly mem­bers, who are all sur­pris­ingly re­cept­ive and re­spons­ive to their con­stitu­ents.”

Since Wolf PAC began, two of the 34 states re­quired to form an amend­ments con­ven­tion””Cali­for­nia and Ver­mont””have passed res­ol­u­tions to do so, and sev­er­al oth­ers are con­sid­er­ing sim­il­ar meas­ures. As out­lined in Art­icle V of the Con­sti­tu­tion, the un­likely pro­ced­ure would lead to a con­ven­tion to pro­pose an amend­ment, which would then need to be rat­i­fied by 38 states.

Friends of Demo­cracy fol­lowed Wolf PAC in 2012, but with a dif­fer­ent concept. Un­der the stew­ard­ship of Jonath­an Sor­os, the son of bil­lion­aire fin­an­ci­er George Sor­os, and Dav­id Don­nelly, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Pub­lic Cam­paign Ac­tion Fund, the PAC sought to sup­port like-minded Cit­izens United ant­ag­on­ists.

The group was re­l­at­ively suc­cess­ful in its ini­tial cam­paign, rais­ing $2.5 mil­lion in 2012 to sup­port eight House can­did­ates who favored cam­paign fin­ance re­form””sev­en of whom went on to de­feat an­ti­re­form in­cum­bents.

But des­pite those mod­est early vic­tor­ies for Friends of Demo­cracy and Wolf PAC, they have been un­able to cap­ture in a few years the vir­al pop­ular­ity that May­day achieved in just a few months. In the fi­nal couple of days be­fore May­day’s Ju­ly 4 dead­line, the group used a ma­jor on­line push to raise over $2 mil­lion, reach­ing their self-im­posed min­im­um of $5 mil­lion with hours to spare.

At least some of that dif­fer­ence can be at­trib­uted to Lessig’s loy­al, wide­spread fol­low­ing. The Har­vard pro­fess­or made a name for him­self as a tech policy and In­ter­net law act­iv­ist, but he made waves sev­er­al years ago when he de­cided to de­vote his ef­forts com­pletely to the prob­lem of money in polit­ics and struc­tur­al cor­rup­tion, most sig­ni­fic­antly with his best-selling 2011 book, Re­pub­lic, Lost. With the help of a couple of pop­u­lar TED talks and his ad­vocacy group “Root­strikers,” Lessig was already at the fore­front of the cam­paign fin­ance re­form move­ment be­fore launch­ing May­day.

“I think he’s helped a lot,” says Lawrence Norden, deputy dir­ect­or of the Demo­cracy Pro­gram at the NYU law school’s Bren­nan Cen­ter for Justice. “He’s a cha­ris­mat­ic, ar­tic­u­late per­son on this is­sue, he brings a lot of pas­sion to it, and be­cause of who he is, he has a lot of le­git­im­acy with vari­ous groups so he’s been able to at­tract a lot of people to the is­sue as a res­ult.”

May­day has be­nefited from sev­er­al celebrity en­dorse­ments, a product of Lessig’s vast net­work, in­clud­ing Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak and act­ors Joseph Gor­don-Levitt and George Takei, who re­ceived over 28,000 likes when he pro­moted the PAC on his Face­book page. But for his part, Lessig speaks mod­estly about his per­son­al im­pact on May­day’s ini­tial suc­cess.

“I have been sac­ri­fi­cing an enorm­ous amount of my own per­son­al life to make this pos­sible, so I hope I can say that we’re mak­ing pro­gress,” Lessig told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “But I don’t think it’s fair to say that what’s happened here is me. I don’t have a ro­lo­dex where if I call, people ne­ces­sar­ily re­turn my calls. A lot of people that we’ve per­suaded to join have done so after they’ve seen the steps to­wards suc­cess.”

While fam­ous sup­port­ers helped to get the word out, stra­tegic choices and tim­ing have also con­trib­uted to May­day’s swift as­cent.

“I think it was a clev­er idea to fo­cus on small donors as a way to raise the money,” Norden says. “But I do also think the con­ver­sa­tion around money in polit­ics has changed a lot. [Lessig] is tap­ping in­to something that ex­ists out there, a hun­ger for this is­sue to be ad­dressed.”

Lessig agrees.

“I’m for­tu­nately pick­ing this up at a point in time when Amer­ica is really ripe to do something,” Lessig says. “If I were do­ing this five years ago, there would be two or­ders of mag­nitude dif­fer­ence in the pickup from the very same mes­sage. So, yes, I’m do­ing my part, but I’m do­ing my part in the middle of a tinder­box. It doesn’t take much to get people go­ing on this.”

The crowded mar­ket of in­creas­ingly well-fun­ded cam­paign fin­ance re­form groups proves that there is plenty of money in the money-in-polit­ics de­bate.

An­oth­er factor that may have con­trib­uted to May­day’s early suc­cess is its am­bi­tion. Part of the reas­on Lessig de­cided to form May­day, des­pite the ex­ist­ence of oth­er groups, is that””un­like older or­gan­iz­a­tions that have al­ways been in it for the long haul””he wants to achieve fun­da­ment­al re­form by 2016. And in an age of in­stant grat­i­fic­a­tion, it’s easy to see why people would be ex­cited by the idea of quick change.

“My view is that we have to win this in a moon­shot-like way. We’ve got to do it quickly and power­fully,” says Lessig, de­scrib­ing one of the few points of de­bate among this com­munity of re­formers that oth­er­wise agree on most as­pects of the is­sue. “It’s not something that we can grow ourselves in­to be­cause the oth­er side is so in­ves­ted in the ex­ist­ing sys­tem that if we give them eight to 10 years to build the op­pos­i­tion then we get crushed, be­cause they have all the money in the world.”

Just last month, a new group called Counter PAC formed with a sim­il­ar ul­ti­mate goal””to re­duce the in­flu­ence of “dark money” in polit­ics””but us­ing with dif­fer­ent meth­ods and an even faster time­frame. In­stead of sup­port­ing in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates who cham­pi­on cam­paign fin­ance re­form, Counter PAC is try­ing to get can­did­ates of all stripes to vol­un­tar­ily change the way their cam­paigns are run by prom­ising to re­ject “un­trace­able dark money.”

The ini­ti­at­ive is modeled after the suc­cess­ful “People’s Pledge” that both Eliza­beth War­ren and Scott Brown took in their 2012 Sen­ate race in Mas­sachu­setts. Un­der the agree­ment, the can­did­ates prom­ised to donate to a char­ity of the op­pon­ent’s choice if they be­nefited from third-party ads and un­dis­closed “dark money” spend­ing. The strategy worked, re­du­cing out­side spend­ing to 9 per­cent in the race as op­posed to 60 per­cent in oth­er states.

“The ques­tion was what can a private or­gan­iz­a­tion do be­sides a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment or a new Su­preme Court ma­jor­ity or oth­er things that are a real stretch,” says Jim Greer, the cofounder of Counter PAC who has also been in­volved with May­day. While May­day fo­cuses on the longer-term solu­tion of stat­utory re­form, Counter PAC tries to pro­mote a quick fix that aims to at least lessen the in­flu­ence of dark money in the mean­time.

“His­tory is made when a great man meets a great mo­ment and I think [Lessig] is the kind of guy that really can bend the arc.”

The crowded mar­ket of in­creas­ingly well-fun­ded cam­paign fin­ance re­form groups proves that there is plenty of money in the money-in-polit­ics de­bate. May­day has raised com­par­able amounts to some of the best-fun­ded su­per PACs, in­clud­ing Nex­t­Gen Cli­mate Ac­tion, Club for Growth, and Amer­ic­an Cross­roads, which raised between $2 mil­lion and $11 mil­lion over a sim­il­ar time peri­od.

For all the spend­ing and ef­fort, however, over­haul­ing cam­paign fin­ance laws is an elu­sive, up­hill battle. Rais­ing funds and pub­lic out­cry is chal­len­ging enough. But per­suad­ing a grid­locked Con­gress to pass sweep­ing re­forms in just a few short years is a far more tenu­ous pro­spect. Lessig in­sists, however, that he will not be de­feated by the “polit­ics of resig­na­tion.”

If the lead­ers of Friends of Demo­cracy, now rebranded as Every Voice, are en­vi­ous of the wide­spread sup­port May­day has re­ceived, they do not show it.

“We wel­come more act­ors in­to this space be­cause we’re not go­ing to be able to win with just one or­gan­iz­a­tion alone. We need a com­munity of groups work­ing to­geth­er,” Don­nelly says. “You can’t dis­count [Lessig’s] fol­low­ing, and that’s the func­tion of tre­mend­ous com­mu­nic­a­tions skills, so he had a plat­form and audi­ence that was ready to re­spond.”

At Wolf PAC, Clayton echoes that sen­ti­ment, ar­guing that all of the groups are on the same side of a “war that we’re wa­ging for demo­cracy against cor­rup­tion.”

“The thing I al­ways say to those oth­er groups is, ‘I hope you’re suc­cess­ful, I hope you win be­cause then I can go back to my life,’ ” says Clayton.

“I think Larry Lessig shares that sen­ti­ment,” Clayton con­tin­ues. “He’s the god­fath­er of this move­ment for free and fair elec­tions, but I don’t think this is the path that he would have chosen, I think this path has chosen him. His­tory is made when a great man meets a great mo­ment, and I think he’s the kind of guy that really can bend the arc.”

This story has been up­dated to in­clude fund­ing num­bers from oth­er ma­jor su­per PACs and stat­ist­ics in­dic­at­ing May­day’s level of vir­al pop­ular­ity. 

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