Granny D's long walk for democracy continues

15 years later, citizens haven’t given up fighting for reform

Fifteen years ago, a 90-year-old woman with arthritis and emphysema completed an historic march on Washington. Her cause was as old, and as bold, as the republic she loved: restoring American self-governance so that people of every age, race, class and creed could have their voices heard in Washington. She hailed from Dublin, N.H., and her name was Granny D.

Doris “Granny D” Haddock stood less than five feet tall but she was a giant of a citizen. With neither cash nor connections, position nor political power, the former shoe factory worker and great-grandmother of 16 set out to right a gaping moral wrong in the life of her nation. That wrong, she surmised, was nothing less than the systematic "selling of our government from under us" until the promise of American democracy had devolved into "government of, by, and for the wealthy elite."

For 14 tiresome months, Granny D trudged 3,200 miles through sun, rain and snow from California to Washington to rouse the American public to the cause of campaign finance reform. By her efforts, and those of countless others who followed in her stead, she helped persuade a recalcitrant Congress to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, banning unlimited contributions and special interest spending on elections – until the Roberts Court.

Five years after the Supreme Court eviscerated decades worth of campaign finance regulations in Citizens United v FEC, American democracy is awash in special interest money. A tiny fraction of the wealthiest 1 percent now provides the lion's share of campaign contributions, spending billions of dollars to influence who can run for public office and what they stand for once they are elected.

The effects of Citizens United are keenly felt at every level of government, from city hall to the president of the United States.

For well-meaning presidential candidates and members of Congress, the pursuit of campaign cash has become an all-consuming occupation with little hope of escape under the current system. As one congressman recently confessed, between 50 and 75 percent of a member's time is devoted to raising money for reelection.

In return for the millions of dollars that wealthy individuals and industries invest in political campaigns, the donors expect – and too often receive – billions of dollars in special subsidies, tax breaks and government contracts at the public’s expense. Empirical studies find that political influence may in fact be the best investment money can buy – for those who have the means.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans who are unable to fund campaigns exert a near-zero, statistically insignificant impact on policymaking whenever their preferences diverge from the moneyed elite.

Put differently, ordinary Americans seeking livable wages, affordable prescriptions, high-quality education or an end to catastrophic climate change are consigned to second-class status in Washington, D.C.

Taking their cue from Granny D, a bipartisan band of citizens here in New Hampshire is taking to the streets in a peaceful New Hampshire Rebellion against big money in politics. In January, they walked over 300 miles – 12,041 miles combined – from all four corners of the state, converging on Concord to emphatically declare that democracy is not for sale.

Some 500 Granite Staters, ranging in age from 15 to 85, joined the frigid walk. The state and national media took note.

With the presidential primaries already underway in New Hampshire and Iowa, the New Hampshire Rebellion and allied groups are challenging every presidential candidate to commit to bipartisan campaign finance reform, beginning with a small donor system of citizen-funded elections. Their goal is nothing less than the election of a president and Congress in 2016 who will make ending systemic corruption their highest priority on day one.

Never before in our country's storied past have we overcome the moral challenges of the day – from slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights – because politicians inside Washington led the way. Rather, change has always come when the citizens themselves stepped forward, out of love for their country and the ideals that make it great.

Daniel Weeks is executive director of Open Democracy, the nonpartisan organization founded by Granny D. 

Categories: Opinion