One Community Beat Big Money on Election Day. Here's How They Did It.

11/06/2014 05:27 pm ET Updated Jan 06, 2015

On Election night, 2014, as campaign spending records were shattered and Jon Stewart declared "Money" the big winner, the people of Tallahassee, Florida lit a beacon of hope for the rest of the nation. Voters in Florida's capital city overwhelmingly approved an extraordinary ethics and campaign finance reform ballot initiative that fights money in politics corruption, reclaims local government for the people, and provides a path to victory for national reform efforts.

The victory was the opening salvo of a new strategy to break through gridlock at the federal level by passing tough new anti-corruption laws in cities, counties and states across the country -- emulating the successful efforts pioneered by marriage equality and marijuana decriminalization advocates in recent years. Passing state and local money-in-politics ballot initiatives is not a new idea (I managed a winning "Clean Elections" initiative in Arizona in 1998). But after watching money in politics reformers suffer years of frustrating losses, strategists in Tallahassee tried something completely different and won big: the anti-corruption charter amendment passed with 67% support.

The Tallahassee campaign was a departure from the traditional approach to money in politics reform in three big ways. First, reform advocates framed the debate around fighting corruption and cronyism rather than "campaign finance reform" or "saving democracy." Second, they formed a real right-left coalition that included the Tea Party Network, the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, and local chapters of the League of Women Voters and Common Cause -- bringing together progressives and conservatives willing to put their differences aside and work together. And finally, they refused to settle for piecemeal reforms and pushed for bold, transformative change in one fell swoop.

Tallahassee's new charter amendment requires a new, independent cop on the beat policing ethics laws, and ensuring everyone follows them. Lower contribution limits to prevent city candidates from amassing huge war chests from a small handful of special interest donors. And a citizen-funding system that enables anyone with a strong base of supporters to raise significant small contributions from everyday constituents, making city leaders more directly accountable to all voters -- not just big donors. That means less cronyism and more efficient use of taxpayer money in the long run.

A coalition that includes both Common Cause and the Tea Party might sound like an unusual bunch, to say the least. After all, how often do progressives and tea party conservatives actually team up? But on this issue, it shouldn't come as a surprise. Poll after poll has shown that overwhelming majorities of progressives, conservatives, and independents support the kinds of policies passed in Tallahassee.

It's only when reform efforts are painted as a pet project of liberals intent on shutting down their opponent's financial support that grassroots conservative opposition heats up. And given the number of Democratic politicians who are keen to demonize Big Money while remaining silent about their own ties to lobbyists and PACs, it's not difficult to understand why so many Republican voters are reflexively distrustful of Democrat-driven reform bills. That's why it's so critical for future reforms efforts to use inclusive and appealing messages, and build genuinely cross-ideological coalitions early. And it is why the Tallahassee effort was such a huge success.

Another key to victory was the use of an initiative process to put an anti-corruption act directly on the ballot. Our organizers didn't have to wrangle with local lawmakers and watch a good proposal get riddled with half-measures and loopholes. They wrote a tough, new anti-corruption charter amendment, took it to the people, and got over twice the number of signatures needed to put it on the ballot. The people of Tallahassee then approved it by a 2 to 1 margin.

But this is bigger than just Tallahassee. We know that money corrupting politics is a national problem, but we also know that real reform isn't going anywhere in Washington any time soon. If we want to break through at the national level, we have to start by building momentum at the state and local level just like marijuana and marriage equality advocates have done: by redrawing the national political map with smart local wins. In the early 90s, barely 20% of the public supported legalizing marijuana. Now, legalization is favored by a majority of Americans.

The big difference between money in politics and pot legalization is that support for anti-corruption reform is starting out with much stronger public support. The laws we need to pass are already wildly popular: our polling for a hypothetical state ballot initiative in Montana showed an astronomical 85% of the public in favor, with support amongst Republican and Democratic voters nearly identical. Get these laws on the ballot, and they win.

And it doesn't require amending the constitution. One of the biggest misconceptions out there that the only way to change anything is by overturning Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United and McCutcheon. But those rulings only affect certain aspects of a very complicated problem. There's a whole slew of laws we could pass tomorrow that are 100% constitutional, even with the current supreme court. Everything from lobbying to disclosure to ethics, enforcement, and citizen funding.

There are over 23,000 municipalities in 44 states where we can we can bypass entrenched local legislatures and city councils, and put tough new anti-corruption laws on the ballot right now. Hundreds of cities in and dozens of states where no congressional intervention or constitutional amendments are needed to pass and protect bold anti-corruption acts.

Not only is passing these laws good policy -- there are plenty of cities and states where corruption is as big a problem as in Washington, DC -- it's good politics too. The more anti-corruption acts we pass, the more lawmakers will sit up and take notice. In Tallahassee, just getting the anti-corruption act on the ballot caused the City Commission to hustle through a pile of additional ethics rules. When lawmakers see how popular new anti-corruption laws are, they see how politically dangerous it is to be on the wrong side of this issue. Every state and local law we pass builds pressure for change at the federal level. That's how we force change on a national scale, and it all started in Tallahassee this week.

Most Americans overwhelmingly want to end money in politics corruption, but even more believe it's impossible. If we want to turn the tide, reclaim our republic, and create a sustainable and sane society, we to make it clear that change is not just possible, but happening right now.

A real movement is on the rise to pass more anti-corruption laws and resolutions, and it all starts at home, in your city or town. This is the most important and effective thing you can do: draw inspiration from victories like Tallahassee, and help replicate them in your community. We're taking this fight to more cities and states in 2015, 2016, and beyond -- and we won't stop until we hit Washington, D.C.

We have found the winning strategy. Now it's time to make it happen.

Learn more at http://represent.us, and visit volunteer.represent.us to get involved in your community.