08/19/2010 11:59 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Connecticut to Congress: Time for Elections Owned by the People, not Special Interests

In last week's gubernatorial primary in Connecticut, the biggest winner of all was a bold idea: that big money should not govern who can seek and win public office. That job belongs to the people.

The election featured the successful first-run of the state's landmark Citizens' Election law for gubernatorial elections, a voluntary law that enables qualifying candidates to run for the state's top job without accepting a dime in special interest funds.

The citizen-funded primary was a radical departure from the big money status quo that continues to hold sway in Washington and state capitols around the country. Indeed, the story of Connecticut's journey from "Corrupticut" to clean elections can provide a helpful lesson for a Congress that faces a crisis in public confidence and accountability.

Six years ago, Connecticut's Republican Governor John Rowland traded a term in office for a term in jail after pleading guilty to charges of corruption. Yet unlike corruption scandals in Washington, where the official in question may leave office and it's back to business as usual, Connecticut voters recognized a crucial fact: John Rowland was merely the symptom of a broken big-money system in which politicians raise millions of dollars to run their campaigns from the very private interests doing business with the government.

To address the root cause and prevent another scandal, the people of Connecticut threw out the very system that had given them John Rowland and demanded a new alternative of funding political campaigns. The resulting Citizens' Election Program, enacted in 2005 and first implemented for legislative elections in 2008, accomplished what reforms at the national level have repeatedly failed to do by changing the very source of money that funds campaigns.

Instead of imposing new restrictions on the same old sources of private campaign cash, and risking a new set of loopholes in response, the Citizens' Election Program has made it possible for candidates to run without accepting a dime in special interest funds. Instead, qualified candidates who can demonstrate broad-based public support by raising thousands of small donations in increments of $100 or less from their constituents, are provided sufficient public matching funds to run a viable campaign.

The logic for this reform is simple. Voters, in Connecticut and beyond, have long recognized that governors accepting personal favors from contractors with business before their state is not the only form of corruption. Raising millions of dollars from those same interests, in accordance with the law, to fund political campaigns is corruption too.

I call it paying the umpire. More eloquently, my friend, John McCain, has called it "an elaborate influence-peddling scheme in which both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder."

That system is changing in Connecticut under the Citizens' Election Program, and it's time the Congress followed-suit.

Indeed, the evidence of change was clear in Connecticut's gubernatorial primaries last week. Running against a wealthy businessman with a well-known name and a record $9 million of his own money to make his message known, former Stamford mayor Dan Malloy opted out of the big money system to ran with citizen funding instead -- and won. Instead of courting wealthy interests or relying on a personal fortune he did not have, Malloy went straight to the people of Connecticut to raise over 4,000 qualifying contributions in amounts of $100 or less, matched with $2.5 million in public funds. He was outspent in the primary by a factor of four to one.

In the Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Governor Michael Fedele also qualified for the state's Citizens' Election Program and closed a 35-point deficit against millionaire businessman and former Ambassador Tom Foley, after receiving his matching funds, to come within three points of winning the nomination. Foley outspent Fedele and his other opponents by more than $1 million in private contributions and self-funding.

Congress would do well to follow the example of Connecticut's Mayor Malloy and Lt. Governor Fedele by trading a big-money system that's rotten at its core for citizen-funded elections. The Fair Elections Now Act, introduced by Connecticut Congressman John Larson (D) and North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones (R), along with Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (D-PA), would bring the Connecticut model to congressional elections. So far it has won the support of more than 180 Members of Congress who are listening to their constituents' calls for a more open and accountable government. It's time the rest follow suit.