When I turned 17, I began working at a brand new Mexican restaurant down the block.
Once during a January evening shift after one of my larger parties had finished dining, I asked my manager, "Can you put a 'grat' on table 11?" He looked at me questioningly and said, "oh, you weren't at our November meeting... we're not doing those anymore."
What?! No more gratuities? Automatic gratuities have been around as long as I've been alive. What would cause them to go away now? Ahhhhh... Like the answer to most of life's questions, it was the IRS.
I learned that a 2012 IRS rule which reclassified mandatory service charges as taxable restaurant income, was taking effect. For many restaurant owners across the country, this new rule created headaches due to mounds of additional paperwork it created. To many, leaving automatic gratuities in place didn't seem worth the trouble. This led to a widespread abandonment of the mandatory service charge.
Frustrated by the fact that the government could impose such a hardship on an industry that already suffers from inconsistent tip-income, wage-theft, unrelenting overscheduling and a federal minimum wage that still hasn't been raised in 24 years, I decided to schedule a meeting with my member of Congress. I was concerned that the IRS hadn't taken the livelihood of servers into account when making this decision. I asked the staff member I met with to write a letter pressuring the IRS to modify this decision in a manner that would respect the toil experienced by tipped employees. The staffer said, "Let me run this by my friends at the NRA (National Restaurant Association) and see what they say."
Shocked that he even mentioned a group like the NRA in the presence of a constituent, I knew there wasn't a chance in hell that my concerns would actually be heard. All of my research and preparation for this meeting were of secondary importance next to the opinions of powerful lobbyists. I was upset that my voice didn't matter, especially because my voice was important and needed to at the very least be heard.
My representative to the U.S. Congress was designed by the Framers of the Constitution to serve as a voice... my voice -- a voice that would stand out among a sea of 435 others. She was supposed to speak for me. She was supposed to represent my concerns. She wasn't supposed to check with the NRA to see if my concerns aligned with unrelated moneyed-interests.
When I left that meeting, I understood then that the one person that each of us has in Congress, who was designed to represent us, in fact is bought by corporations and special interests. Everyday Americans like myself don't have the capital to compete with wealthy campaign contributors.
I knew that there was a bigger problem here than just restaurant service charges -- but some states are doing something about it.
I had read in school how in 1996 Maine people crafted a unique campaign finance law that allowed candidates to run for office without being dependent on contributions from the wealthy and special interests, by providing guaranteed public funding to candidates who participated in their new Clean Elections program and agreed to strict spending limits. The Maine Clean Election Act was designed to bring to the state government a sense of accountability, legitimacy and candidate-voter interaction. This way, victorious participating candidates could legislate in accordance with voter and constituent preferences without feeling pressured to appease lobbyists and outside interests because of the money they would have poured into their campaigns.
Unfortunately, because of a number of money-friendly, misguided Supreme Court decisions, Maine's first-in-the-nation Clean Elections law has been severely weakened. But, Mainers are pushing back. They have decided enough is enough. They are joined by Democratic and Republican legislators alike, who have chosen to be held accountable to small donors in their own districts instead of outside interests. They refuse to live in a society where corporations and PACs speak louder than they the people. They are fighting for their right to self-governance, in opposition to outside interests and the bearers of undisclosed dark money who seek to strip their sovereignty away from them.
This year they put a citizen-led referendum on the ballot that won't just strengthen Clean Elections but will also hold corrupt politicians, special interests and wealthy contributors in check by increasing transparency, requiring greater disclosure and toughening fines and penalties for those who break the state's ethics laws.
This referendum is so important. We cannot rely on Washington to represent the interests of the people, because Washington politicians are not beholden to their constituents -- they are accountable to their campaign donors. With a Supreme Court that believes decisions like Citizens United v. F.E.C. (2010) represent the protection of equal speech principles, millions have been left without an equal voice.
That is why I have come to Maine to volunteer this summer, because Mainers will not let a government of, by and for the people degenerate to a government of, by and for the money -- a plague to which Washington politicians have irrevocably succumbed. In the 2014 midterms, no state had higher voter turnout than Maine. The people of Maine don't leave their political fate to chance. They mobilize. They organize. They fight back. They vote. Maine has shown that it can respond to a threat to its democracy, evidenced by last year's collection of over 85,000 citizen signatures for the creation of a November 2015 Accountable Elections Referendum. Tens of thousands of people signed this petition, demanding a change to money's disproportionate influence in politics.
I guess I owe thanks to my Congresswoman. Because of that meeting, I learned that before we can tackle any issue -- not just restaurant tipping policies -- in a substantive way, we the people must unite. We must address the elephant in the government. No, not the GOP -- money. Money in politics.
A republic which remains unchecked by the people it was intended to represent is in no form a republic. Because of the people of Maine, in November, America will witness a decision handed down not by the government or special interests, but by the people on an Accountable Elections Referendum initiated by the people. By raising our voice, informing our friends and family, and taking a short amount of our time to volunteer and donate for the last time, we can effect real change again in this country. It all starts in Maine.
This is what representative democracy is all about. And I am fortunate to be a part of it.
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