The New York Times and the Washington Post both recently reported on young women who have lit grassroots fires: Keli Carender, who hosted the first Tea Party, and Annabel Park, who launched the Coffee Party.
Well, here's my nominee for new populist heroine: Jessica Sharp, a young mom from Maryland who is the subject of a video profile I just produced for the coalition FreeSpeechforPeople.org. If you're looking for a glimmer of hope in these dark political days, please watch the video Making a Movement.
On January 21st, Jessica was driving home from work with her two-year-old daughter, Samantha, in the back seat, when she turned on NPR and heard that the Supreme Court had just swept away longstanding precedents barring corporate spending in our elections.
Right about then, Jessica drove past a family farm where she often bought vegetables and wondered how it would fare in the years ahead, as big companies like Monsanto and ADM pour more money into campaigns. If Exxon, or Halliburton, or Goldman Sachs found some member of Congress, or state rep, or judge, to be a thorn in their side, couldn't they just pour money into attack ads to defeat them? Jessica looked back at her daughter in the car seat and worried that she would grow up in an America where corporations have more and more power, real people less and less.
By the time she reached home, she was fighting back tears. She spent the evening surfing the web, looking for anything she could find about the Supreme Court decision. In the wee hours, she discovered the site for FreeSpeechforPeople.org, and watched the video (produced by yours truly) that launched the campaign. It featured two politicians from her own state of Maryland: Jamie Raskin, a state senator and constitutional law professor at American University, and Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who, along with Congressman John Conyers, has co-sponsored a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizen's United decision.
In nearly twenty years of making video, I've rarely been so touched as when Jessica told me, "Your video really honestly is what gave me so much hope. When I heard about the ruling, I didn't think there was anything that could be done about it. Then I saw the video, and I contacted Senator Raskin and Congresswoman Edwards, and asked if they wanted help with a rally."
Jessica had never organized a political rally. She'd never even been to many rallies. But on February 22nd, she found herself holding an umbrella in one hand and a microphone in the other in front of the Maryland State House. Despite the freezing rain, a hundred people had shown up -- including three television news crews and four state lawmakers -- and the rally won the support of nearly two dozen public-interest groups.
It was the first event in what promises to be a powerful new movement that could dramatically change our political landscape in the months and years ahead. Polls (here and here) show that Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all strongly opposed the Supreme Court's decision. Now there's a message they can all get behind: Free speech is for people, not corporations.
The past year's battles over health care, financial reform, and climate change should dispel any doubts about the power of corporate money in Washington. But many Americans, like Jessica, remember that all of the big changes in our history -- from winning the eight-hour day and women's right to vote to abolishing slavery -- have come from regular folks who got organized and overcame the entrenched interests of their day. By giving corporations the power to buy our politicians, the Supreme Court may have unintentionally sparked a grassroots wildfire that will turn our corporatocracy into a true democracy.