Small money strikes back with the 99Rise movement

Media almost ignores activist, the 47 arrests at Capitol, and the group’s campaign-finance-reform message

Just before the Fourth of July weekend, while most of us were fixin’ to grill and drink and blow stuff up, other red-blooded Americans were down at the state Capitol getting arrested for democracy.

Forty-seven people were arrested in all, over nearly two weeks, for occupying the Capitol and demanding action on campaign-finance reform. The events were organized by a newish group called 99Rise, and many of its supporters had marched nearly 500 miles from Los Angeles. Different kinds of people: a teacher, a retired businessman, a homeless teen, a working mom. Bites watched the last few of those arrests, carried out by the California Highway Patrol beneath the Capitol dome. They were peaceful and polite on everybody’s part. But any arrest is scary, and people who do it willingly do it because they really give a damn about something.

The march and the arrests got some media attention, but not a lot. Same with the legislative agenda 99Rise came to support: measures calling for a U.S. constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, and a bill requiring more disclosure of big-money donors.

The latter, called the California Disclose Act, would require the three biggest funders of advertisements for state and local ballot measures to be plainly identified in political ads—whether in print, online or broadcast. And it would require the names of the original donors to be disclosed, not just the money-laundering committees with the misleading names like Sacramentans for Jobs and Prosperity, or California Senior Advocates League. That bill is still winding through the statehouse after more than two years.

Assembly Joint Resolution No. 1, passed by the state Legislature late last month, asks the U.S. Congress to call a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United, to declare that money is not speech, and limit corporate personhood for the purposes of campaign-finance law. The state of Vermont has done the same, 32 other states would need to follow suit to call a convention. Similarly, the Overturn Citizens United Act, Senate Bill 1272, would give California voters a chance to advise Congress on a constitutional amendment. That bill is on the governor’s desk.

How likely is a 28th Amendment on campaign finance, really? Probably best to have a backup plan.

That’s why the “small money” proposals for public funding of elections put forward by Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig are so intriguing. Lessig suggests government-matching funds for candidates who rely on small donors, as well as small individual “vouchers” for voters to give to the candidates of their choice. Lessig also launched the Mayday PAC, a Kickstarter-style effort to raise small donations and make campaign finance an issue in targeted congressional races around the country. On July 4, the “super PAC to end all super PACs” had garnered 50,000 small donations and raised $5 million.

Public financing of elections is not a new idea or a radical one. The courts have held up public financing because it doesn’t limit anybody’s speech. It just gives candidates an alternative to dialing for dollars and courting big donors.

Sacramento actually has a public-financing law on the books, though you wouldn’t know it. More than a decade ago, the Sacramento City Council, pushed by groups like California Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, approved matching funds for city council candidates who agree to spending limits and a set of fair campaign practices. About $300,000 was set aside in the public-financing campaign fund.

The law needs improvement: Would-be candidates found it confusing and difficult to use. That suited incumbent city council members, who disliked the idea of giving money to challengers. Bad budget times provided the political cover to defund public financing a couple of years ago. Though the city budget is back in the black, the city council refused to fund it again this year.

Thus protecting the system that worked for them, where only candidates supported by business and labor PACs and other big-money donors have a chance to win local office.

Public financing would help grass-roots candidates like Jeff Harris, who won last June’s primary for the District 3 city council seat, despite not taking any PAC money and being outspent 10-to-1 by his closest rival, Cyril Shah. Harris was really the only small-money candidate at the city or county level to have any kind of success this year.

But with the unusual seven-candidate scrum of a primary behind us, there’s a good chance that Shah will just bulldoze Harris in the runoff with his real-estate and building-trades PAC money.

Should Harris start dialing for dollars? Or just hope he can hang in without it? Right now, there aren’t many alternatives for the small-money candidate.