Let’s Get the Big Money OUT of Oregon Politics! By Harry Lonsdale
Are you sick and tired of all of the Big Money in Oregon politics? Troubled that some lobbyist from the tobacco industry is out on the golf course—right now—with your State Representative? Does the thought arise that democracy is broken in America?
If so, read on. There’s something you can do to help fix the problem. A group of dedicated Oregonians named “Money Is Not Democracy” has crafted an Initiative for 2004 that ends the corruption of money in Oregon politics.
This is possible using the Voter’s Initiative. It allows We the People to pass laws, even amend the state Constitution.
In 1902, Oregon became the second state, after South Dakota, to approve—with 90+% of the vote—a Constitutional Amendment giving citizens the direct power to make laws. Two years later, Oregon became the first state in the union to actually make laws this way. Thus was born the Voter’s Initiative, the only real political power that voters have.
The Initiative has been widely used in Oregon ever since. We’ve passed more laws by Initiative than any other state—and, for the most part, the Initiative process has been enormously beneficial to Oregonians. Women got the right to vote in Oregon, by Initiative, in 1912, years before it became federal law. Similarly, the 40-hour workweek became law in Oregon by the voters’ Initiative process. These were the most important social justice issues of the day.
Now we’ve got an issue every bit as big as those issues were then. We’re going after Big Money in politics. And we will win, just as earlier generations of Oregonians won. We’re talking big-time Campaign Finance Reform in our state!
The amount of money spent in Oregon politics has exploded, mainly because of the high cost of buying TV time to run ads. Huge “contributions” from corporations and wealthy individuals are thinly veiled bribes. Those contributors want something when the election is over. And they usually get it, at the expense of the public good.
Why should you care? Because the flood of money impacts every facet of our lives, from the taxes we pay, to corporate welfare, to environmental regulation, to arms exports, even to the war in Iraq. Special interests, including the health insurance industry and National Rifle Association, thwart the will of the voters by denying us universal healthcare and gun control, for example.
Campaign Finance Reform (CFR) activists have been at work in Oregon for more than a decade. In 1994, Oregon voters overwhelmingly approved a CFR Initiative, with a 72% “yes” vote. For the one election cycle that the statute was in effect it had a very positive effect: campaign contributions dropped by about 3/4. Unfortunately, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional in 1997, arguing it violated the free speech clause in Oregon’s Constitution. (Our Constitution is even more protective of freedom of speech than the U.S. Constitution.) Since then, campaign contributions and expenditures have continued to skyrocket, hitting an all-time high of $42 million in 2002. (In the 2002 governors race, one man—Loren Parks—contributed about $700,000 to Kevin Mannix campaign. Mannix still lost.) With all of the money, of course, came all of the influence-peddling, corruption, sold-out lawmakers, and laws favoring the special interests, starting with corporate tax-breaks.
But the will of the people cannot be denied. We know from poll results that Oregonians still overwhelmingly favor CFR. And now we have a very strong law-in-the-making. It’s known as Petition 53.
When it becomes law, Petition 53:
- Prohibits all corporate and labor union contributions to candidates for all in-state elections.
- Limits contributions from individuals to candidates to $1,000 for partisan state-wide races, $400 for non-partisan or judi-cial races, and $200 for non-statewide races.
- Allows contributions to political committees, but sets limits on those contributions. Aggregate annual contributions to committees and political parties are limited to $5,000 per person.
- Limits the amount wealthy individuals can contribute to their own election campaigns to $20,000.
- Allows the creation of small donor committees, with contribution limits of $50 per person annually, to support or oppose any candidate.
- Prohibits corporations and labor unions from making independent expendi-tures to candidates. Limits individual independent expenditures to $10,000 per year on all candidate races.
- Has tough reporting requirements for contributions and expenditures, and very tough enforcement provisions.
To prevent this law from being overturned by the Oregon Supreme Court, or gutted by the Oregon legislature, it will become part of the Oregon Constitution. Only federal courts have jurisdiction to hear challenges to this amendment, and any such challenges are likely to fail because the U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled favorably on similar laws in other states. (It would have been our choice to set many of the above limits even lower, but we ran the risk of being overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.)
When this new law becomes part of the Oregon Constitution, it will forever change the way candidate elections in Oregon are conducted. No longer will the fat cats rule. We expect to see a new breed of elected official in Oregon, one beholden to no one but Oregon citizens. Right now, Oregon is one of only six States with NO limits whatever on political contributions from any source to any candidate. Petition 53 will change all that.
There are two great features to this Initiative petition. First, of course, when it becomes law it’ll clean up Oregon politics.
But equally important is the opportunity it gives for Oregon progressives to coalesce around an issue of great importance. Under present conditions, it’s difficult for even outstanding progressives who are poorly funded to get elected.
Until we fix the money problem, progressives can have an enormous impact by getting progressive Initiatives on the ballot and getting them passed into law. Some future Initiatives we are looking at seriously include:
- Changing election laws to provide for “instant runoff voting” or proportional representation, either of which will break the two-party stranglehold on elections.
- Prohibiting corporate contributions for or against ballot measures. In the past decade, corporate money has sunk a raft of ballot measures that early polls showed were favored by the people–before vast corporate money “changed their minds.”
- Enabling media access, to allow We the People to fairly utilize public airwaves.
Our work is cut out for us. By July, 2004, we must collect 150,000 signatures of registered voters in order to qualify our Petition 53 CFR Initiative for the ballot. It’s a huge job—but a huge opportunity. We’re expecting young Oregon progressives to lead the way in the signature-gathering effort. If “democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” then direct democracy—which is what this is about—is clearly an activist’s sport.
We Need Your Help Please visit our website, www.voters.net/mind to find out the details of the Initiative and to keep current. But, even more important, please call to volunteer some time to gather signatures. Our key contact people are: Ed Page, Corvallis, (503) 361-1236, [email protected]; Pam Driscoll, Eugene, (541) 343-5628, [email protected]; Paul or Lee Dayfield, Portland, (503) 258-8011, [email protected]; Andy Reid, Portland, (503) 238-5761, [email protected]; David Delk, Portland, (503) 232-5495, [email protected]; Harry Lonsdale, Sisters, (541) 549-1556, [email protected] Call one of us today!
In case you’re wondering, even passage of Petition 53 won’t clean up the corruption in Washington, DC, where it’s at least as bad as it is in Oregon, and it affects all of us even more profoundly. But only Congress can change federal campaign finance law, and they won’t clean it up until enough citizens make their voices heard. Passage of Petition 53 will send a message to Congress from Oregon that we demand change. The McCain-Feingold law, passed by Congress in 2002, is a small step in the right direction. But it doesn’t stop fat cats from buying members of Congress. Our CFR measure in Oregon is the best we can do, until we have a national Initiative.
Harry Lonsdale lives in Sisters and is a registered member of the Pacific Green Party. He ran for the U.S. Senate three times in the 1990s. He has written a current book about his experiences: RUNNING. Politics, Power, and the Press, available from www.1stbooks.com or 1-888-280-7715.