Yesterday, Congress and the administration were busy hammering out details on the federal bailout of the financial industry. Industry lobbyists were also on hand, no doubt, reminding lawmakers of the $2 billion dollars in campaign contributions they've given to their campaigns over the years.
Two miles up the road, though, at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference (one of the largest political gatherings of African-Americans in the country), people were coming up with a different solution to the crisis. Lawmakers and activists gathered in Washington yesterday to address the need for Fair Elections, or full public financing of elections. Instead of bailing out Wall Street, these leaders want to bail out the political system by making elections about voters and volunteers instead of dollars and big campaign donors.
My organization, along with the National Black Caucus of States Institute, the Fair Elections Now Coalition, and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) hosted a "brain trust" panel session at the conference to address the need for Fair Elections.
Moderated by William McNary, president of USAction, the event featured a wide range of political and civil rights leaders from California Assembly Speaker Karen Bass to Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus.
A packed house of over 100 people listened to elected officials and leading civil rights advocates yesterday discuss how public financing of elections levels the political playing field and opens up the political process to those without political connections or bottomless bank accounts.
"We keep ceding too many public decisions to private interests," said McNary. "Fair Elections strikes at the core of our democracy."
McNary then introduced Judge Wanda Bryant from the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Judge Bryant is a past participant in the state's judicial public financing program. She was able to compare the experience of running under both the private and publicly financed systems and she preferred the latter.
"Public financing allows us to raise small amounts of money from large groups of people," she said. "It allowed us to gain a lot of grassroots support."
Then, the audience got a visit from Rep. Lee, just off the Hill from bailout negotiations, who emphasized the barrier money places in the way of countless community leaders that want to run for office. "It's hard to run when it costs millions of dollars," she said.
There are millions of young people out there who would make great politicians, she said, "people who could change the world." Unfortunately, they don't have the money to make it happen.
Rep. Lee was followed by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), elected to office in Maryland running on a ticket of support for public financing and other reforms. She said that those elected under Fair Elections, "come into office in a different way." They protect the public interest, not special interests.
"Our public policy is being polluted by the money that's in the system," she continued.
Gary Winfield, a young politician from my home state of Connecticut, then discussed his experience as a first time candidate using the state's new Fair Elections system. Without Clean Elections, I wouldn't be here," he said.
Moving from first time candidate to legislative leadership, Speaker of the California Assembly Karen Bass spoke about the pressure put on her to raise millions of dollars to keep her caucus afloat.
The session then moved to activists organizing in communities across the country. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers and current president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, spoke. "Congress is not running the show," she said. "How can we be a democracy if we have no control?"
Fair Elections would engage more people in the political process than today's system of bundling and four-figure checks. "When an ordinary individual puts $5 into a campaign, they're invested."
Five dollars is, in many Fair Elections systems, the qualifying contribution amount candidates seek from their constituents.
Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, said that we will not get the policies we need until we get Fair Elections. "We've got to pass this bill," he said.
Rounding out the impressive panel was Rev. Lennox Yearwood, president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus. The Hip Hop Caucus works to get young people across the country engaged in politics and civil rights issues.
"Fair Elections is critical for our generation," Rev. Yearwood said. "This is our lunch counter moment."
Hearing all of these barrier breaking lawmakers and activists shine the light on the need for Fair Elections was truly inspiring. It was one of the strongest panels I've seen in my history of working on this issue.
We need to disconnect the tie between corporate lobbyists and big money contributors and their access and influence with our elected officials. Where does change come from? It comes from voices like those at the panel yesterday that recognize the need to dramatically alter the way Washington works.