BILL MOYERS: This week on Moyers & Company…
JONATHAN SOROS: Money will find a way into politics.
DAN CANTOR: Money doesn’t talk, it swears. So we’re trying to turn down the ability of money to control things.
JONATHAN SOROS: For our democracy we cannot rely on disagreements among rich people.
BILL MOYERS: And…
MARTÍN ESPADA: There’s something about poetry that saves me. There’s something about poetry that energizes me that brings me to another plane. Fires all the hormones, I don’t know what. Something intangible and yet tangible at the same time.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome. At the State of the Union speech, there’s always more than meets the eye. Just out of sight is the reality of how we are governed. The House of Representatives, where Congress gathers to hear the President, used to be known as “The People’s House.” But money power owns the lease now and runs the joint from hidden back rooms.
You're looking at the most expensive Congress money can buy. The House races last fall cost over one billion dollars. It took more than $700 million to elect just a third of the Senate. The two presidential candidates raised more than a billion a piece. The website Politico added it all up to find that the total number of dollars spent on the 2012 election exceeded the number of people on this planet -- some seven billion.
Most of it didn’t come from the average Joe and Jane. Sixty percent of all super PAC donations came from just 159 people. And the top 32 super PAC donors gave an average of 9.9 million dollars. Think how many teachers that much money could hire.
We’ll never actually know where all of the money comes from. One third of the billion dollars from outside groups was “dark money,” secret funds anonymously funneled through fictional “social welfare” organizations. Those are front groups, created to launder the money inside the deep pockets.
And don't let anyone ever tell you the money didn't make a difference. More than 80 percent of House candidates and two-thirds of Senate candidates who outspent their general election opponents won, and were present and counted as the new Congress prepared to hear the President. Remember, money doesn't necessarily corrupt legislators, but it certainly tilts them.
HOUSE SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER at the State of the Union: Members of Congress, I have the high privilege and distinct honor of presenting to you, the President of the United States.
BILL MOYERS: So let's share some snapshots from the State of the Union. That’s Speaker of the House John Boehner, of course. He's led his party to protect Wall Street from oversight and accountability. The finance, insurance, and real estate industries gave him more than three million dollars last year.
Eric Cantor is the Republican majority leader in the House. Among his biggest donors--Goldman Sachs, masterminds of the mortgage-backed securities that almost sank the world economy. Cantor’s also the third largest recipient of money from the National Rifle Association in the House, which is one reason he's such a "big gun" there.
Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, may be in hot water. He's currently under investigation for allegations that he improperly intervened with government agencies on behalf of a big donor.
And there's Fred Upton, Republican from Michigan, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. What a coincidence. The oil and gas industry is one of his top donors, helping him raise the four million dollars he spent last year to win re-election.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrats of New York, have Wall Street as a constituent and patron. Her biggest contributors include JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and law firms that have advised them. His top donors include securities and investment firms, lawyers and legal firms, and lobbyists.
And there are fleeting glances of some familiar faces here tonight seen recently on our broadcast. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah, and Democratic Senator Max Baucus of Montana. All cited by "The New York Times" as suspects in that mysterious migration of half a billion dollars from taxpayers over to the bottom line of drug companies, especially the pharmaceutical giant Amgen. Would it surprise you to learn that over the past five years, Amgen has been one of the top ten donors to McConnell, Baucus, and Hatch?
As for our president--by attending a fundraiser on the average of every 60 hours during his bid for a second term, he once again broke the record for bringing home the bacon. Although the money power that controls Congress could thwart everything Obama proposed in his State of the Union address, there was not a single word in his speech about taming the power of private money over public policy.
And so it goes: The golden rule of politics. He who has the gold, rules.
Can we do anything about it?
My two guests think we can. They say that if anybody should own the politicians, we the people should. Dan Cantor is a former community and union organizer who’s executive director of the Working Families Party. That's a third party that began in New York State and has now spread to five others. Since its launch fifteen years ago, he's helped lead the party's efforts to elect progressive candidates throughout the state and worked to increase New York's minimum wage and raise taxes on the rich.
Jonathan Soros is one of those who would pay more. He's a lawyer, investor and philanthropist working on economic change and social goods. A senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute exploring the role of corporations in society, and co-founder of the super PAC Friends of Democracy, which aims to counter the influence of money in politics – an irony we'll discuss later.
Dan and Jonathan are on the front lines of the fight to make New York State a national model for the public financing of political campaigns. Welcome to you both.
DAN CANTOR: Thank you so much.
JONATHAN SOROS Glad to be here.
BILL MOYERS: What an odd couple you are. Jonathan, you're a lawyer, a man of means, you're active in finance among other things. Daniel, you are a street fighter who cut your teeth organizing labor. In fact New York Magazine once called you the very model of a grassroots political boss. What is, briefly, the Working Families Party?
DAN CANTOR: So Working Families is a political party organized under the laws of New York more or less in an alliance with the Democrats. We try to yank the Democrats in what we think to be a sensible, humane, progressive direction. We get about five percent of the vote statewide, but in some target races we can get as much as 15 percent, 20 percent, 22 percent.
BILL MOYERS: Who funds you?
DAN CANTOR: So it's a variety of individual donors. We raise, we do a lot of door-knocking. That's about 25 percent of our donations. Unions, individuals, you know, we scuffle, we do fundraising events. It's not a high donor operation, but we try to keep, you know, keep the doors open.
BILL MOYERS: So Jonathan, what drew you to this rabble rouser?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, Dan and I first worked together probably about a decade ago as we were taking on the question of Rockefeller drug laws in New York State. And then he came back to me you know, a little over a year ago. Dan's been working as part of a terrific coalition of groups, the New York Fair Elections Coalition, that have been promoting campaign finance reform for a number of years in New York state. He knew that I had a lot of interest in this issue for a long time. And so we--
BILL MOYERS: What, where does, where'd that interest come from?
JONATHAN SOROS: My first real job out of college, I ended up spending almost two months in Moldova, the Republic of Moldova, working with a USAID-funded foundation dealing with their first ever parliamentary elections. I was there on the ground for two months. That was my first taste of really how rules matter, in the way that elections are conducted, and how sometimes the unwritten rules matter too--
BILL MOYERS: The unwritten rules? Such as?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, so there were, there weren't great rules about campaign finance in Moldova. You know, their first ever elections, there was, you know, a lot of use of state funds in electioneering. Folks who were sitting in the parliament were, an existing parliament were running around in state cars, doing their campaigning.
BILL MOYERS: This has been a communist governed country?
JONATHAN SOROS: Communist governed country. And then I had a great, I had a great teacher in law school, Lani Guinier, who really opened my eyes to a number of issues related democratic process. And it's been a set of issues that I've cared about ever since.
BILL MOYERS: What are you after in New York state?
JONATHAN SOROS: So we're after a comprehensive system of campaign finance reform. I got involved in this really actively after Citizens United on the belief that there is still despite the Supreme Court's rulings that there is a suite of reforms that would be transformative in the way that money flows in and around politics. And that's now on the table in New York state. It starts with disclosure obviously. But it really focuses around what we're calling citizen funding, a form of public financing that allows candidates the opportunity, gives them the option to run for public office without dependence on large contributions and independent expenditures. That's really what we're, what we're seeking to achieve.
DAN CANTOR: I mean, I think his point about rules is really worth underlining, right. Better rules product better outcomes whether it's in elections or for that matter in the finance industry. There's economic inequality, you've talked a lot about that on this show over the years. But there's also political inequality. And this effort is an attempt to deal with at least that second one a little bit.
But if you deal with political inequality, we have a system that should be one person, one vote, not one dollar, one vote, you'll affect other things besides the elections themselves. The, we have a non-virtuous system right now in which wealth gets power, uses the power to increase its wealth. You know, Justice Brandeis' famous comment about how you can have a great concentrations of wealth or you can have a democracy, but you can't have both. So we're at a moment in this society it seems to us which we have to make a decision. And we need to create a system that voters themselves will have more confidence in. Because right now when you knock on doors people are, they're pretty cynical that things can change.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't the governor of New York, Governor Cuomo, on your side? Listen to what he said in his State of the State speech in January.
GOVERNOR ANDREW CUOMO: We must enact campaign finance reform because people believe that campaigns are financed by someone else at exorbitant rates […] implement a public finance system based in NYC. It works well in NYC it will work well in NY state.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think he's serious?
JONATHAN SOROS: I do think he's serious.
BILL MOYERS: How will he prove he's serious?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, he'll prove his seriousness by getting this bill passed in the coming legislature. Campaign, I think we can have confidence that the governor will be able to pass something that is called campaign finance reform in this state. The real test and measure is going to be whether it includes this citizen funding.
BILL MOYERS: How would public funding work?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, it can work a lot of different ways. We're, for obvious reasons it's most useful to point to New York City when you're in New York state. Here we have a system in the city if you're running for citywide office or for city council, any contribution up to, you qualify to get into the system, you elect to be in the system, it's voluntary. Then any contribution up to $175 is matched six to one--
BILL MOYERS: By the public?
JONATHAN SOROS: By the public. Out of a pool from the general fund from the budget. And that has had a dramatic transformative effect in the way that funds are raised.
BILL MOYERS: How so?
JONATHAN SOROS: First of all the level of small donation, the Campaign Finance Institute and the Brennan Center have done some great research and produced some beautiful maps showing the difference in the two systems. If you look at a map of state assembly races in New York City and how many small contributions there are for those races, there are almost none throughout the entire city. Look at the same map of New York City for city council races, it's covered.
There are small contributions coming from every neighborhood, even the poorest neighborhoods in the city people who are running for office are reaching out to their constituents, ordinary citizens, they're having house parties in people's living rooms, not large, you know, large, check, fundraisers. And the statistics are that the people who participate in the system get the majority of their funding from small contributors and only a small minority of what you, what are still large contributions of, you know, $1,000 and up.
DAN CANTOR: This is a gigantic change. I mean, people should appreciate who gets to run for office when you have a system like this. Librarians run for office, ex-teachers run for office. It's not just people who have a rolodex of prospective donors who get to run for office. And it's good for the candidates and the voters alike.
You, there's a lot of middle class and working class people who can write, who can put that $10 and $20 and $50 together. That's worth $70 or $140 or $350 to the candidate. So it makes a house party with 30 people at which you raise $1,000, which takes a couple of hours, it's worth $7,000. That's a real thing that the candidate can then use because we actually need money to run campaigns. They have to have mailers and staff and so on.
BILL MOYERS: So if I were to run for the city council or some other office in New York City and I announce that I'm going to enter this system and I get you to give me how much?
DAN CANTOR: Forty dollars.
BILL MOYERS: And if you give me $40 what happens?
DAN CANTOR: Then the city fund gives you $240 on top of that. So that's a $280 contribution. That's a big contribution. And it means to me as a voter I have a little skin in the game and I'm going to pay attention to you. So it totally changes kind of the relationship between the candidate and the donor, that a lot of small donors. And also we, you know, we favor people putting a little money in.
We don't, if you can't go out, if you're running for office and you can't find 300 or 400 people to give you $20, you have no business running for office. So we're not looking for, it's a little bit of private money and then some public money. But then you don't have to just spend your time as an elected official should you win, in the unlikely event that you win, you then don't have to spend your time mostly worrying about how to get those $2,000 and $3,000 checks.
BILL MOYERS: But public funding did not stop Mike Bloomberg from spending a small fortune.
JONATHAN SOROS: A large fortune.
BILL MOYERS: A large fortune on his three elections.
JONATHAN SOROS: That's true. But it did allow his opponent to run a credible campaign. And the election was pretty darn close.
BILL MOYERS: Using public funding--
JONATHAN SOROS: Using public funding. So if you look across the country there's all sorts of evidence of people who spent a lot of money in campaigns, who spent more money than their opponents and lost because having more money and having a lot of money doesn't make you a better candidate. What matters is having a threshold, an amount of money that's sufficient to run a credible campaign. And that's what citizen funding allows you to do. It allows you to get that amount of money that lets you run a credible campaign, be a good candidate connecting with your voters and do it in a way that's focusing your attention on ordinary citizens.
BILL MOYERS: But how does it undo the power of big money?
DAN CANTOR: Well, so Mayor Bloomberg's an outlier. There aren't so many candidates like that. Listen, we're never going to keep private money out of politics. That's the wrong ambition. The goal is to--
BILL MOYERS: You're not saying we should?
DAN CANTOR: We shouldn't and we can't--
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that's right. But Citizens United makes it impossible.
DAN CANTOR: They have opened the gates wide. And it was even before Citizens United as you're well aware the gates were open pretty wide. So the ambition isn't to keep private money out. It's to get enough public money in so that even when you have somebody who is not part of the system spending a lot, the other person gets to a threshold that makes it reasonable, right. You don't, at some point the extra money isn't that valuable. You just have to get to be competitive. And that's what we have found in the states and cities where you have public--
JONATHAN SOROS: If I could just add to that. I mean, it really is about reducing the influence of that money. And that takes--
BILL MOYERS: Of the big money?
JONATHAN SOROS: Of the big money. So that takes two pieces. One is create an alternative for candidates to run without reliance on the big money. The second is we need to have some genuine rules about what independent means. So when we talk about the super PACs, now, it's widely misunderstood, super PACs are actually fully disclosed. We know where the money comes when it comes through a super PAC.
As you were pointing out in your opening there's money that flows into the super PACs that isn't disclosed. So that has to get dealt with. But those super PACs were a farce, right. You have candidates endorsing them, you have candidates showing up at fundraisers and then leaving before the, you know, before the money is asked for. You have campaign staff, former campaign staff running them. We have no effective rules. This is all legal under what is considered coordination by the Federal Elections Committee-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, we say a super PAC is okay if it's independent of the campaign. But in practice--
JONATHAN SOROS: But --
BILL MOYERS: --and in reality, in the real world--
JONATHAN SOROS: But in practice it's not.
BILL MOYERS: --it's not independent.
JONATHAN SOROS: Right. And so that would reduce the influence and the appeal of those vehicles if they really were independent. We've had independent expenditure in campaigns really forever. But even dating back to the last big wave of campaign finance reform and the one before that, the, under the Buckley-Valeo decision in 1976 the Supreme Court said independent expenditures are okay. And those have been there for a long time.
Now, we've crossed a different kind of threshold after Citizens United both by allowing now corporate enterprise to get into the game, but also I think more importantly than the legal change which as wasn't as big as people make out, but it's a normative change. It's become an acceptable form of political engagement to be involved in a super PAC and dump large amounts of money in independently into, or supposedly independently into campaigns. So we need to do both things. We need to actually have this separation so that candidates are at least arm's length from the outside groups. And we need to create an alternative for it.
BILL MOYERS: I was involved in public funding in the early days 20 years ago and so was the Schumann Foundation which I headed then. And the common argument we ran into everywhere was, "I, the voter, the taxpayer, doesn't want to fund the politician's ambitions."
DAN CANTOR: Sure, welfare for politicians. I don't want my tax dollars going to politicians. Listen, here's a good, smart thing they say. We have real problems in our state, we need money for schools. We shouldn't spend even a modest amount of money on this election system of ours. And our view is that's, you know, penny wise and pound foolish because if we don't do this then people feed at the trough, the Verizons, the Goldman Sachs, other forces are able to get public money in a way that would not be possible because we'll end up with people in office who are not beholden to them.
And what will happen when we have a clean election system is that it will become a negative for candidates who don't participate over time. In the beginning there'll be people in the system, some will be out of the system, that's okay. But we think we can create a kind of a norm in which people, it becomes a benefit to be part of a fair elections, a clean elections system.
JONATHAN SOROS: I think what we're seeing, what we see consistently in polling is that voters are so disgusted with what they see in their politics that they're willing to consider an alternative and they're willing to pay the costs of funding their elections a different way.
BILL MOYERS: Is the New York model, the New York City model working? Do you think it's working effectively?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well. It's completely changing the way that candidates run for election. It's opened up the opportunity for different sorts of folks to run for election. And it means that those who are running and succeeding in the system are getting their-- are getting funded in their campaigns from small, principally from small contributors rather than big contributors. I think that means that you have the opportunity to have a degree of trust in your government in New York City that you don't have elsewhere in the country.
DAN CANTOR: I think it's been profoundly successful, right. There are always some problems with things and no system, this is not some, you know, magic feather that is going to make democracy work, in all, you know, you still need good candidates with good ideas, you need organizations keeping them honest. But if you can reduce this particular problem which you led off with, the enormous power that private money has you'll get better outcomes. Better rules, you get better outcomes. So there's, yes, it's working I think.
BILL MOYERS: There was a local race here in New York for a state senate seat. It got a lot of attention. Your candidate supported by your super PAC and by your Working Families Party was Cecilia Tkaczyk, right? She won by 18 votes with one recount after another. And many people are saying that this is a turning point in the fight to clean up state politics. Tell me about that.
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, for starters she's now potentially the 32nd vote in the state senate in favor of reform, 32 being a majority. But more importantly this election was basically a referendum on her support for citizen funding as a part of campaign finance reform.
BILL MOYERS: She was for it and her opponent was against it?
JONATHAN SOROS: Exactly right. And it became the central issue over the last several weeks. Dan actually called this an organizer's dream. This issue became central and she won as you said by 18 votes after a long recount.
BILL MOYERS: Beating a millionaire incumbent?
DAN CANTOR: A millionaire assemblyman who was running up the food chain trying to take a senate seat.
BILL MOYERS: And you think she won because she came out for the public finance?
DAN CANTOR: Absolutely, it animated--
JONATHAN SOROS: She thinks she won because she ran on this issue.
BILL MOYERS: We have the ad that you supported, let’s take a look.
DAN CANTOR: Oh great.
NARRATOR in Campaign AD: In the senate George Amedore means more pay-to-play corruption in Albany. Amedore took tens of thousands of dollars from corporations and wealthy donors and opposed a tax increase on the rich. He voted against loans for small businesses, and even opposed raising the minimum wage. And Cecilia Tkaczyk? Tkaczyk’s a farmer, a school board member, and a mom. She’ll fight for middle class families and end pay to play politics in Albany that by supporting fair elections that put us ahead of the special interests. Cecelia Tkaczyk for Senate.
JONATHAN SOROS: Her opponent was George Amedore. He was a sitting assemblyman from, you know, from an adjacent, conjoined district. He then put out a halfhearted response and said he was for campaign finance reform but only about disclosure. And he did that and then he attacked her on her support for citizen funding. That became that's one of the reasons it became the central issue.
DAN CANTOR: Her name is Cecilia but goes by CeCe, CeCe Tkaczyk. So Amedore starts calling it the CeCe Tax, she wants to have a tax named after herself that's going to cost everybody in the district money to pay for elections, to give money to politicians. That's sort of your worst nightmare when you're running a campaign. I've got a new tax named after me. She was forthright. She said this is going to make our system better. Voters responded.
BILL MOYERS: Jonathan's super PAC supported it financially, but you put boots on the ground, didn't you?
DAN CANTOR: Sure, they were an army of door-knockers and phone bankers and volunteers going door to door identifying voters and then turning them out on election day. This was just days after Hurricane Sandy. Roads were washed out, we had to have, you know, caravans trying to get people to the polls, people stationed at bridges that had been washed out persuading them to go out of their way to vote which it produced that last 19 votes we needed. So I'll be ever grateful to the woman who did that.
You don't know what's going to win in elections, so you do everything. You have to have the so-called air war, television, the ground game, what Working Families and our allies did. You put it all together and sometimes when you have a good candidate who's willing to be forthright and then you have an opponent who decides, "Ah, I'm going to kill her with this," it makes, it's a perfect storm.
BILL MOYERS: And here’s her opponent’s ad:
NARRATOR in Campaign AD: Shadowy NYC Money groups, calling themselves campaign finance reformers, spending hundreds of thousands on negative attacks. Rewarding their candidates like CeCe Tkaczyk who pushed their agenda: taxpayer-funded campaigns which could cost us over $200 million per election. George Amedore knows we already pay enough. He’s worked to cut middle class taxes to the lowest in decades, cap property taxes for families and seniors, and cut wasteful state spending. George Amedore – standing up for us.
BILL MOYERS: That shadowy New York money, that's you.
JONATHAN SOROS: I think that's me, although I don't know which shadows I'm in, I mean, we're fully disclosed in public about what we were doing.
BILL MOYERS: But here's the irony that I mentioned earlier. You started a super PAC last spring, Friends of Democracy, because you don't like super PACs, right? You want to get rid of super PACs?
JONATHAN SOROS: We were the first to recognize the irony, and we've got a lot of fun out of it, we are the super PAC that is, that has a mission of reducing the influence of money in politics.
BILL MOYERS: Who funds your super PAC?
JONATHAN SOROS: So I funded part of it. And then we raised about half of the money from other sources.
BILL MOYERS: Isn't it a little weird? You start a super PAC to defeat super PACs, aren't you escalating, aren't you proving in the fact that it takes a super PAC to win and therefore you're escalating the arms race?
JONATHAN SOROS: So again, I, it's a serious question and I think there are a couple of different points to make about it. So the first is our objective is not to force the private money out of politics. As Dan mentioned earlier you can't as a constitutional matter and as a practical matter you can't. Even if the constitutional regime changed money will find a way in to politics.
It really is the focus is about reducing the influence of money. And again that comes from first separating the money from candidates so that if you're going to have independent expenditure it is truly independent, real rules around complete disclosure so that the dark money that you referenced in your opening isn't dark anymore, it sees the light of day.
Real and functional enforcement, the Federal Election Commission is designed for inaction and incapacity. It is by mandate three Republicans and three Democrats and they require a majority to do anything, to either make a rule or do enforcement. So that means they can do the little things, but anything that has real meaning, and then obviously the thing we've been talking about, citizen funding.
The other thing I make about, related to our irony, we weren't outspending anybody, right. We spent in the aggregate about $2.5 million across eight congressional races and this race in New York state. These are races in some cases $12 million, $10 or $12 million were being spent when you include all the inside and outside so we weren't outspending anybody. What we were doing was we were lifting up an issue that was otherwise, that differentiated the candidates that otherwise was going to be ignored, creating the opportunity for that to then be engaged in the actual debate between the two candidates.
And what we saw was that when that issue gets debated and engaged the candidate who is supporting reform and particularly supporting citizen funded elections tends to win. But in the aggregate George Amedore and his allies outspent everybody else on the other side. He had more money to spend in that election and he still lost.
DAN CANTOR: Which proves the earlier point. It's not about, you don't have to match the other side dollar for dollar. You have to have enough to be credible. And that's why you want to have a citizen funding system with this private, public match at some multiple that gives people who would never ever think about running for office a way into the game.
You get people who come out of a history and service and commitment to a community group, to a union, to some kind of consumer organization. And they say to themselves and we say to them, "You should consider running for office." And it would never be possible and you see the light of on saying, "Maybe I can. I know 400 people. I've been working in this community for 15 years." So that's what becomes possible under this kind of system.
BILL MOYERS: Your super PAC didn't just support this senate race in New York. You supported how many congressional races around the country?
JONATHAN SOROS: We were heavily involved in eight congressional races around the country.
BILL MOYERS: And your candidates won how many of them?
JONATHAN SOROS: Seven out of eight.
BILL MOYERS: There was, well, you ran an ad against Charlie Bass, the Republican in New Hampshire last fall. Let's take a look at that ad.
SPORTS ANNOUCER in Campaign AD: Another sell-out crowd at the ballpark today. Three and two--
MOCK CONGRESSMEN in Campaign AD: Those seats are taken.
NARRATOR in Campaign AD: Do you feel frozen out like this when it comes to congress? No wonder. Corporate lobbyists have your congressmen’s full attention.
MOCK CONGRESSMEN in Campaign AD: Sorry, those seats are paid for too.
NARRATOR in Campaign AD: Your congressman Charlie Bass took over one hundred and sixty-six thousand dollars from big oil and voted to give them billions in taxpayer subsidies. If we don’t vote against Charlie Bass, middle class families will never get in the game.
MOCK CONGRESSMEN in Campaign AD: Those seats are taken!
NARRATOR in Campaign AD: Friends of Democracy is responsible for the contents of this advertising.
JONATHAN SOROS: That is the message that we're trying to send. Now, our view is that there is a suite of reforms that are, that can be comprehensive and really meaningful and that a sitting politician is not going to elect, is not going to enact those reforms unless they believe it, unless they believe that they're election depends on it. So we're trying to send a message that being on the wrong side of the reform in a close election can cost you your election.
BILL MOYERS: Now, public financing has actually happened in several states. Maine enacted it some years ago for state races. Massachusetts enacted it by a 60 to 65 percent vote of the public. But then the Democratic legislature refused to fund it and eventually killed it. Arizona has it and--
DAN CANTOR: Connecticut.
BILL MOYERS: --it's been, yeah, and Connecticut has it, but it's been involved in one court case after another in Arizona. Do you think ultimately if it gets to the Supreme Court, the Citizens United court would uphold it?
JONATHAN SOROS: The Supreme Court has so far not had a problem with the, with citizen funding as a concept. What they threw out in the Arizona case unfortunately was the idea that they could trigger additional funds, so if you're in the system and either a self-funding candidate or an independent group was spending a lot of money against you, you would get more money than you would otherwise.
And they decided that that somehow is chilling the speech of the independent person. And so they prohibited it. It makes it harder. It means we have to design a different, have to think about different ways to design a citizen funded system to make it more robust and be able to respond when there is large independent money being spent on the outside. But there is no problem with the constitutionality of a citizen funded system whatsoever.
BILL MOYERS: Has it been tested?
JONATHAN SOROS: It's been tested. It's been tested in that, you know--
DAN CANTOR: It's voluntary, so you're not requiring people to jump in. But if they jump in they have to abide by certain limits and rules and it seems to be pretty successful where it's been --
JONATHAN SOROS: It's been tested dating back to the public financing system that existed for the, and still exists technically for the presidential races.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think this could ever become a player in the national field?
JONATHAN SOROS: I think that what happens here in New York is extremely important for exactly that reason. I mean, first as Dan said earlier this will be the first significant response to Citizens United, the first forward step since that massive step backwards. So that in itself sets a great example. But New York is an example for the nation in many ways. The governor, it's been speculated, has some ambitions for 2016. This would truly differentiate him in an otherwise leaderless field around this issue. He'll be bringing this if he succeeds, trumpeting it in the primaries in 2016 as an accomplishment and challenging his other, the other candidates to take similar stands. And it sets an example for other states then to enact similar reforms and eventually for the federal government.
BILL MOYERS: You said recently that money only matters up to a point. How so?
JONATHAN SOROS: Well, consider the presidential election. You mentioned a billion, north of a billion dollars spent on each side. Would Barack Obama have won reelection if he had $100 million less? If he had $200 million less? Probably. There's some amount of money that it was going to require him to run a robust, credible campaign for president. And beyond that the, to use the economic term, the diminishing marginal returns of additional money is extraordinary, that after a point the spending is just going to the wind.
BILL MOYERS: Were you disappointed that in his State of the Union speech there was no reference to Citizens United, no reference to public funding, no reference to campaign finance reform? And I know that polls show that when people say those words, campaign finance reform, eyes glaze over. But he was silent on this subject at a critical moment.
DAN CANTOR: Listen, the reason we have to focus on doing this at the state level is the system is blocked in Washington to any meaningful effort, so this why we have to succeed in New York and some other states and that will open things up. I think the president has decided that this is not, this dog is not going hunt.
JONATHAN SOROS: I was disappointed that it wasn't in his speech but not surprised. You know, the, and the president has decided instead to focus on other incredibly important issues regarding failures in our democracy and the way that people vote. And that's important as well. But the president has missed a number of opportunities to show leadership on this issue. And I think that's been both unfortunate and a bad choice politically for him.
I'd say the biggest obstacle that we face is actually just the enormous cynicism that citizens have about their government. They have a hard time believing that there's a way to do this that actually would create a system where their representatives are really working for them. That's a real obstacle.
DAN CANTOR: And I would add you don't, we don't talk about campaign finance reform. We talk about corruption. That's what this system is, right, and people know it. And the data on this is enormous. When you describe to people the current system and say, "This is an alternative," you get supermajorities in favor of it. So part of this is we have to have a good message. We have to be relentless about promoting it. You got to look for opportunities like this senate race, like these congressional races where you can turn an election into a referendum on this unusual but unbelievably important topic and we'll win more than we lose.
Elected officials while they're nervous about changing the system under which they have themselves thrived, once in office they like this because a lot of people go into public service for a good reason. They don't want, they don't enjoy going to the lobbyist fundraisers or dialing for dollars any more than a normal human being would. So this is an opportunity for them to get off of that hamster wheel and remind themselves of why they got into this to begin with which is to help solve actually important problems.
BILL MOYERS: Can we really though put the genie back in the bottle when everyone these days is rubbing that bottle?
JONATHAN SOROS: The answer is we can't know for sure. We, there's so much money being spent, there's so much cynicism about the system. But the evidence shows in the states that do have public financing systems the evidence shows that candidates can run in those systems and win and they do it by focusing on their constituents and small donors.
Somebody who gives $10 to a campaign, they're more likely to show up and volunteer, they're more likely to show up and vote, they're more likely to follow what happens. And so that having a system where candidates can spend their time engaging with their constituents directly is going to, is going to be what, part of what allows the big money to have a reduced influence.
DAN CANTOR: The electoral moment is the moment in our society where people pause for a minute, not for very long but they do pause and we get to answer the question, ask and answer the question, "How are we doing?" Our view is we're not doing as well as we should and this is one of the reasons why. Bob Dylan's famous phrase, "Money doesn't talk, it swears." So we're trying to turn down the ability of money to control things, not getting rid of it. But somehow for some reason in this moment it seems to have finally penetrated public consciousness. They know the system is corrupt and they want to have some confidence not everybody, but enough people want to have some confidence that we can do better.
BILL MOYERS: Jonathan Soros, Dan Cantor, we'll be watching what happens. Thank you very much for this very informative discussion.
JONATHAN SOROS: Thank you, Bill.
DAN CANTOR: Thanks for having us.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a familiar saying in politics that campaigning is poetry and governing is prose. Not on this broadcast. Here, poetry is poetry, period and holds a cherished place, which is why we maintain a sort of poet’s corner and welcome back to it our friend, Martín Espada.
Growing up tough and Puerto Rican in the city and then in the segregated suburbs of Long Island, Martín Espada wove his life’s experience into verse, compose even as he studied history and law and worked as an advocate for tenant’s rights in Boston.
Now he teaches poetry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and has published sixteen books, including his recent collection, "The Trouble Ball." Martín Espada welcome back.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: There's a very short poem in the book, four lines long, that I wonder if it's autobiographical. It's The Poet's Son.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes, it's in the book and yes it is.
The Poet's Son Watches His Father Leave for Another Gig
Once again you're choosing between dignity and Christmas
BILL MOYERS: That's it.
MARTÍN ESPADA: That’s it. It's like a sub-haiku. It is autobiographical. It is something my son said to me many years ago. Now my son is 21 years old. He's a junior at Bennington College. He's six foot seven. Fortunately he responds to voice commands. He said this about ten years ago. And I never forgot it, obviously. I finally chose to write it down.
BILL MOYERS: You were leaving?
MARTÍN ESPADA: I was literally walking out the door.
BILL MOYERS: Going?
MARTÍN ESPADA: To do another reading somewhere on the road. Going anywhere and everywhere. It's what I used to call my tour of dying industrial cities.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I…
MARTÍN ESPADA: "Hello Scranton."
BILL MOYERS: And he was 11 years old and--
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But he objected to your leaving.
MARTÍN ESPADA: He did, he did. I think to a certain extent, this reflects the sacrifices that parents make if they are artists or if they are activists or if they are simply workers. And you have to walk away from your son or your daughter. The last person in the world you should walk away from. And yet you realize at the same time that you must. Without the act of walking away, this person's world will be impoverished. And yet at the same time, there is no escaping the impoverishment of absence. You're not there.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, well this is universal.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: And I wonder how much it is due to vanity as well.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, absolutely. The gig calls. Well, there's a kind of ethic of the road, you know? You go out there and you do the gig. And it doesn't matter what kind of condition you're in. Some of the gigs I've done have, you know, I once did two readings at a prison with an abscessed tooth. And after that, the librarian at the prison rushed me to an oral surgeon for emergency surgery.
But what was I going to say to the inmates, "I have a toothache"? So their need outweighed my own at that moment. I once did a reading in Houston with a collapsed lung. And literally was coughing all night and was in so much pain. I remember that I ruptured a muscle from coughing. I had to sleep sitting up. And yet I went, I did the gig. Now, I learned something over the years. The gig is not God. The gig is not all. You can on occasion postpone a gig or cancel a gig.
BILL MOYERS: So with that in mind, read that again.
MARTÍN ESPADA: The Poet's Son Watches His Father Leave for Another Gig
Once again you're choosing between dignity and Christmas
He was right of course.
BILL MOYERS: Dignity whereas you're being true to your commitment outside. Christmas was his notion of where you are with him.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Well, what he perceived, what he captured was that there was some indignity in what I was doing. And indeed, there is. You know, life on the road is very undignified in a lot of ways. And anyone who's ever done battle with a continental breakfast knows that.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, tell me about it.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, you know, that jammed dispenser of Raisin Bran, or the microwave oven where the door doesn't close all the way, or the broken toaster. I could go on.
BILL MOYERS: Been there, done that.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Read me The Playboy Calendar.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Ah yes. This is a poem that's really about me and my father, my father was trying to reach out to me at 17 years old, I was a mystery to him, as I imagine all 17 year olds are to their fathers. And he was trying everything he could think of to see what would stick. And this is what stuck.
The Playboy Calendar and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
The year I graduated from high school, my father gave me a Playboy calendar and the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. On the calendar, he wrote: Enjoy the scenery. In the book of poems, he wrote: I introduce you to an old friend.
The Beast was my only friend in high school, a wrestler who crushed the coach's nose with his elbow, fractured the fingers of all his teammates, could drink half a dozen vanilla milkshakes, and signed up with the Marines because his father was a Marine. I showed the Playboy calendar to The Beast and he howled like a silverback gorilla trying to impress an expedition of anthropologists. I howled too, smitten with the blonde called Miss January, held high in my simian hand.
Yet, alone at night, I memorized the poet-astronomer of Persia, his saints and sages bickering about eternity, his angel looming in the tavern door with a jug of wine, his battered caravanserai of sultans fading into the dark. At seventeen, the laws of privacy have been revoked by the authorities, and the secret police are everywhere: I learned to hide Khayyám and his beard inside the folds of the Playboy calendar in case anyone opened the door without knocking, my brother with a baseball mitt or a beery Beast.
I last saw The Beast that summer at the Marine base in Virginia called Quantico. He rubbed his shaven head, and the sunburn made the stitches from the car crash years ago stand out like tiny crosses in the field of his face. I last saw the Playboy calendar in December of that year, when it could no longer tell me the week or the month.
I last saw Omar Khayyám this morning: Awake! He said. For Morning in the Bowl of Night Has flung the Stone that puts the Stars to Flight.
Awake! He said. And I awoke."
BILL MOYERS: To whom or to what do you owe that defining choice of Omar Khayyám over the Playboy calendar? Because that's the story of your life.
MARTÍN ESPADA: I certainly owe those who came before me. In particular, I owe my father. My father did not have a college education. There were not books of poetry all over the house. But there was this book. It was significant and profound for someone to hand me a book of poetry. I was surrounded already by the images in that Playboy calendar. And they were not as meaningful to me as the images in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. And so I'm very grateful to my father for giving me that that book.
BILL MOYERS: I really like the poem in here, Blessed be the Truth Tellers. Tell me about that and read it for me.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Jack Agüeros is a Puerto Rican poet, fiction writer, playwright, community organizer, translator. He was for many years the director of El Museo del Barrio was at the time the only Puerto Rican museum in the continental United States, in East Harlem.
And every year, Jack would organize a Three Kings' Day parade. Real camels and sheep marching right through the streets of East Harlem. Talk about visionary. Jack was the first writer I ever met. He was a political colleague and ally of my father. And he came to visit us one day in the projects of East New York where I was born and raised.
Blessed Be the Truth-Tellers for Jack Agüeros
In the projects of Brooklyn, everyone lied. My mother used to say: If somebody starts a fight, just walk away. Then somebody would smack the back of my head and dance around me in a circle, laughing
When I was twelve, pus bubbled on my tonsils, and everyone said: After the operation, you can have all the ice cream you want. I bragged about the deal; no longer would I chase the ice cream truck down the street, panting at the bells to catch Johnny the ice cream man, who allegedly sold heroin the color of vanilla from the same window.
Then Jack the Truth-Teller visited the projects, Jack who herded real camels and sheep through the snow of East Harlem every Three Kings' Day, Jack who wrote sonnets of the jail cell and the racetrack and the boxing ring, Jack who crossed his arms in a hunger strike until the mayor hired more Puerto Ricans.
And Jack said: You gonna get your tonsils out? Ay bendito cuchifrito Puerto Rico. That's gonna hurt.
I was etherized, then woke up on the ward heaving black water onto white sheets. A man poking through his hospital gown leaned over me and sneered, You think you got it tough? Look at this! and showed me the cauliflower tumor behind his ear. I heaved up black water again.
The ice cream burned. Vanilla was a snowball spiked with bits of glass. My throat was red as a tunnel on fire after the head-on collision of two gasoline trucks.
This is how I learned to trust the poets and shepherds of East Harlem. Blessed be the Truth-Tellers, for they shall have all the ice cream they want.
BILL MOYERS: It just occurred to me as you were reading that I happen to know that you've been through the last couple three years a very, death-defying ordeal, illness.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Yeah, yes.
BILL MOYERS: You're better, I can tell, your color's come back, there's energy in your voice. I mean, you read these poems the way you did the first time.
MARTÍN ESPADA: There's something about poetry that saves me. There's something about poetry that energizes me, that brings me to another plane. That fires all the hormones, I don't know what. Something intangible, and yet tangible at the same time. There is something to poetry and activism which has the same energizing effect.
BILL MOYERS: Does illness of that kind rob you of an identity that poetry gives you back?
MARTÍN ESPADA: Absolutely. Catastrophic illness destroys not only the body but the spirit and the identity in particular. You no longer know who you are. When the lights go out and you undergo that general anesthesia for whatever the surgery might happen to be, you wake up again, you are not the same person. But you don't know who you are.
It's certainly, your name is on that I.D. badge, right the bracelet that you're wearing and you're desperate to cut off. But you don't know. And it will take some time to figure it out. Two schools of thought, one is "Oh, you'll be the same guy you always were." And the other is, "You'll be somebody completely different." And I still don't know how that story's going to end.
BILL MOYERS: The book is "The Trouble Ball," the poet is Martín Espada. Martín thank you for being with me.
MARTÍN ESPADA: Thank you very much.
BILL MOYERS: In our last episode of that Washington soap opera, “As the Door Revolves,” we introduced you to former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, who left government to become a hot shot Wall Street lawyer defending such big firms as JP Morgan. "The New York Times" reports that she and her husband, who’s also a corporate litigator, have a net worth of at least $16 million and investments that might be valued as high as $35 million.
And now, courtesy of President Obama, Mary Jo White’s been named to head the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission -- the very agency that regulates her clients and everyone else doing business in the stock market.
But as they say on late night TV, wait, there’s more. Join us for our latest episode of “As the Door Revolves” in which the door spins ever faster between the SEC and big business. According to a major new report from the nonpartisan watchdog POGO – the Project on Government Oversight -- hundreds of the agency’s former employees have done or are doing business with the SEC on behalf of the corporations the agency is supposed to regulate.
Imagine – hundreds with an intimate knowledge of how the place works advocating for their clients with friends at the SEC -- colleagues who themselves may be looking for a big payoff when they, too, leave government.
No wonder the SEC has granted special waivers to business on some 350 occasions that, according to the report, “softened the blow of enforcement actions.” The plot thickens.
POGO also reports that when Obama’s first SEC chair, Mary Schapiro, pushed for reform of the money markets business, it was opposed by the two Republicans on the Commission and one Democrat, Luis Aguilar, who used to be an executive vice president with the money management firm Invesco.
He came out against Schapiro’s plan shortly after a meeting with Invesco officials. Coincidence? Aguilar told POGO there’s no connection.
When George W. Bush was president and named Chris Cox to run the SEC, we screamed like bloody murder, because Cox had been a partner at a huge global law firm whose client list included Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs.
Now Obama’s pushing his choices through the same revolving door. It’s called “regulatory capture” – the takeover of government agencies by the very corporations they’re supposed to keep an eye on, to protect everyone’s investments and pensions against abuses of private power.
What next? Well, stay tuned. In the next few weeks, Mary Jo White will sit for her confirmation hearing before a committee stacked with politicians whose big donors include the financial industry.
At our website, BillMoyers.com, there’s an interview with POGO’s Michael Smallberg, who led the investigation. You can also read the complete report, find out how to forward it to your own member of Congress, then open your window and scream.
That’s all at BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.