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Good Government/Reform Fri Jul 26 2013

America's #1 Populist Tips His Hat to Illinois' Campaign Finance Reform Movement

If politics is a matter of who gets what, when, and how, then Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission (2010) would aptly be described as a monumental political game changer. In the few short years since the Supreme Court of the United States decided money and speech are one in the same and withdrew restrictions on independent political spending, Americans have watched the whos, whats, whens, and hows of politics bending in one distinct direction: towards the interests of the 1%.

Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner, nationally syndicated columnist and radio commentator, New York Times bestselling author, and self described American populist Jim Hightower knows a thing or two about fighting corporate influence in government, and he is a leading voice in the movement to overturn Citizens United.

In town addressing a coalition of campaign finance reform activists this past weekend, Mr. Hightower unpacked the significance of SJR27, a motion recently passed by the Illinois General Assembly calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Illinois is the 14th state to pass such a motion.

The bipartisan action represents an organizing victory for watchdog group Common Cause Illinois and coalition members, who spearheaded the grassroots movement that drafted SJR27 and got it on state ballots in 2012. The measure was widely favored across party lines, with nearly 3/4's of Illinois voters supporting the call.

Jim Hightower isn't surprised that a majority of people are on board to overturn Citizens United. In the wake of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, even with a Democratic president at the helm, governmental favor is smiling down on corporate interests at the expense of the working class like never before. On issue after issue, elected officials are unable or unwilling to pass progressive reforms favored by a majority of Americans.

Did we get universal health care? Nope. Did we implement real environmental protections? Nada. Did we pass tighter gun regulations? No siree. Did we enact financial reforms to prevent catastrophes like the 2007-08 financial meltdown brought on by big banks? You guessed it. No, we did not. Or rather, our elected officials did not act on these issues because doing so would be unacceptable to the corporations who bankroll their very political existence.

Even so-called liberal legislators who voiced initial opposition to the Citizens United ruling, including President Obama, have proven unable to resist the temptations of unlimited super PAC campaign financing. These Democrats, Mr. Hightower charges, have failed to be Democrats. "When you take that corporate check," he explains, "written on back is that corporate agenda."

Indeed, Mr. Hightower laments that corporate agendas now broadly navigate political decision making across the country. Here in Illinois, we've seen those corporate interests pushing for movement on issues such as hydraulic fracturing and public service privatization. They've also perpetuated the "myth of austerity" onto state and local budgets, resulting in steep cuts to education and social services.

Though a majority of Illinois legislators are Democrats, their embrace of corporate economic initiatives seems right out of a Republican playbook. Save for a handful of issues, Illinois legislators have largely eschewed proletarian interests in favor of austere policies benefiting wealthy "job creators".

Some blame Illinois' strong party leadership and top-heavy political system for mucking up progress, but Mr. Hightower insists legislative influences from corporate campaign financing and corporate interest groups like the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) merit a hearty chunk of that blame.

He points to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a poster boy corporate Democrat. The mayor's successful political career has been predicated on large corporate campaign contributions, and he answers chiefly to those corporate financiers, not to the people of Chicago, Mr. Hightower asserts.

For those who've been paying attention to Rahm Emanuel's political trajectory, like Jim Hightower has been, the Mayor's push to privatize public education doesn't come as a surprise. He's a former banker who left Wall Street to became a politician. That's what bankers-turned-politicians do, Mr. Hightower says, they support business friendly, laissez-faire policies.

Despite the corporate vice grip on government at the moment, Jim Hightower still believes in the power of the people to restore our democracy. He sees proof of that power in the growing movement of Americans organizing to overturn Citizens United.

Regardless of the amendment's final outcome, Mr. Hightower notes that passing the motion to overturn Citizens United through the Illinois General Assembly has been an effective organizing tool in and of itself. The movement has coordinated, strengthened, and galvanized an active group of citizens who are creating the infrastructure for progressive politics and working to keep government accountable. "That's democracy," he beams.

Mr. Hightower admits that passing this constitutional amendment isn't going to fix the entire problem of money in politics. It is, however, a necessary and powerful first step. While overturning Citizens United would not prohibit corporate political spending, it would place caps on that spending and stifle the campaign finance arms race. Beyond that, Mr. Hightower acknowledges that truly severing the financial and political bonds between corporations and government will require further action.

When asked what other campaign financing reforms, if any, would go far enough to eliminate corporate control over government, Mr. Hightower answers unwaveringly, "Publicly financed elections."

Picture an electoral process in which all legitimate candidates receive equal, modest campaign funding, and are strictly limited to that funding. Runs for political office would no longer be determined by a candidate's access to private funding and advertising, but rather, by genuine public support garnered by action. Third party candidates would finally have a fighting chance at political representation as well. Plus, mandatory public campaign financing would enable legislators to actually focus on doing their jobs instead of constant fundraising for campaign contributions.

Comprehensive campaign reform won't come easily, but Mr. Hightower knows it can be done. He predicts the organizational strength forming around the movement to overturn Citizens United will, in time, stoke fires under more campaign finance reform movements. Educating voters and establishing a younger, more active political base will propel the effort. Mr. Hightower underscores the necessity of continued public strategizing, organizing, and mobilizing to push Congress towards progressive reform.

After all, ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and it is up to the people to guard that democracy and keep it so.

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