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.”
“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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