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. 

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
17 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
18 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×