You're an 88-year-old great-grandmother, living in a small New Hampshire town. Your husband has died from Alzheimer's disease. Your life, you might expect, is settling into its quiet sunset years.
That is, unless you're Doris "Granny D" Haddock, who at the age of 88 set out on a 3,200-mile walk across America to bring attention to the need for campaign finance reform--and whose inspirational life came to a close this month, a century after it began.
On the New Year's Day in 1999 when Granny D started walking, campaign finance reform in Congress seemed as distant as ever--a promise on many politicians' lips, but one without a human face. Granny D provided that face. Her march began without fanfare, with nary a foundation grant or focus group in sight, but 14 months later (appropriately, on February 29, "leap day"), she arrived triumphantly in Washington, D.C., joined in her final mile by a crowd of more than 2,000 people, including dozens of members of Congress.
She told the crowd: "This morning we began our walk among the graves of Arlington--so that those spirits, some of whom may be old friends, might join us today and so that we might ask of them now, 'Did you, brave spirits, give your lives for a government where we might stand together as free and equal citizens, or did you give your lives so that laws might be sold to the highest bidder, turning this temple of our Fair Republic into a bawdy house where anything and everything is done for a price?'"
Two years later, the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill became law--far from the level of reform that Granny D and other campaign finance leaders were wiling to settle for, but also far more than many had thought possible.
I first heard about Granny D from Dennis Burke, then the director Arizona Common Cause, which had recently helped win a ballot measure securing one of the strongest public financing bills in the country. Granny D had entered Arizona, and Dennis embraced her efforts and ultimately worked with her on two books. When a Granny D comes walking by, he told me, you need to push the usual litter of projects surrounding overworked nonprofit leaders aside--a lesson for all of us.
I met Granny D in 2001 at a pro-democracy conference in Philadelphia, where our tables adjoined one another. At 91, she was steadfastly talking to every activist strolling by, with a nimble mind able to absorb new ideas. As we talked about lessons from the 2000 election, she was fascinated by the idea of instant runoff voting, the ranked choice voting system that accommodates multi-party politics. A year later, she had woven "IRV" into her speeches, including in a searingly acute analysis of the major parties as we hurtled toward the Iraq war.
In 2004, when Granny D was 94, no Democrat was ready to take on incumbent U.S. Senator Judd Gregg. She entered the race on the last day of filing, ultimately earning the votes of more than one in three New Hampshire residents, and the hearts of many more.
Since her death, many have honored Granny D for the inspiration she gave them. At her memorial service, activist Dan Weeks talked about a visit Granny D made to his high school. She spoke "with an irresistible fervor," he said; Weeks has worked to reform campaign finance every since. Dennis Burke told the crowd, "She was no more special than you, and you have the identical power to make a difference."
Radio commentator and author Jim Hightower, the former Texas politician who I suspect will be doing his own national march when his century mark comes along, may have said it best: "Doris Haddock made her voice heard. Throughout the last decade of her life, she embodied the national yearning for democratic reform and rallied a movement that has successfully pushed for local and state clean-election laws that give our "people's voice" real strength against the moneyed interests.... Her strong heart beats in everyone who dares to confront the corporate corrupters of our democratic system."
She leaves a remarkable political legacy, founded on her passionate support for a democracy that works for all of us.
Rob Richie wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Rob is the executive director of FairVote, a non-profit organization that researches and advocates election reforms that increase voter turnout, accountable governance, and fair representation.