Zephyr Teachout on Getting Big Money Out of Politics in 2016

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This interview first appeared in The American Prospect.

MayDay PAC video screenshot from YouTube

In 2014, the campaign finance reform activist and Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig launched Mayday PAC — the PAC to end super PACs. The group raised about $11 million and targeted support for candidates who were committed to reforming the role of money in politics. While its efforts in the 2014 election were largely unsuccessful, Lessig did succeed in jumpstarting a conversation about how to combat the private campaign financing of our elected officials, and more recently, the scourge of unlimited outside spending a la Citizens United.

On Monday, it was announced that law professor and progressive firebrand Zephyr Teachout will be taking over the reins as Mayday plots its strategy for a 2016 election that will likely unleash an unprecedented amount of money. Most recently, Teachout challenged Democratic incumbent Andrew Cuomo for the New York State gubernatorial nomination. She gained a substantial grassroots following but ended up losing the primary. In 2014, she released her second book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. She has previously worked as the director for online organizing for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and was the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency advocacy group.

Following the announcement of her new post, The American Prospect talked to her about what she took away from the 2014 elections, her strategies for the 2016 election, the importance of serious public financing reform, and how to make money in politics a bipartisan issue.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

TAP: In 2014, when Mayday PAC was active in its first election it raised about $11 million. But the PAC was largely unsuccessful in its attempts to overcome big money-backed candidates. Looking forward to the 2016 elections, what do you take away from Mayday’s experience in 2014 and what new directions do you hope to go in the near future?

Zephyr Teachout
Mayday PAC
Dale Robbins
Zephyr Teachout: I think the thing that Mayday showed was that we can actually build this highly political, electorally focused, grassroots money-spending, small donor group of people who care unbelievably deeply about getting rid of private financing as a model. There’s this myth out there that self-perpetuates that candidates believe that although the populace cares about corruption, they’re not going to vote on it. So what Mayday and Larry [Lessig] show is that the power is there.

But I’ll tell you where I hope to go.

One of the things that I’m really focused in is that first of all, we have to make private financing toxic. The private financing dissenters will spend all their energy talking about the particulars of public financing systems — all the little problems. But private financing is an incredibly insane system…every private financing system leads to radical distortions of power.

So that’s one goal is to make it toxic, that you can’t just be silent on it. But if you are silent on private financing in elections and aren’t actively supporting some model of public financing, that’s a problem — you’re a pro-corruption candidate.

Another thing that I really want to focus on is connecting concentrated power and the new monopoly state with how campaigns are funded. That you see, basically over the last 30 years, this unbelievably quick transformation to monopoly capitalism, instead of competitive markets, in area after area after area. And that’s a vicious cycle with the private financing model. Take Comcast as an easy example: Comcast basically takes over politics to concentrate power, and then concentrates power to take over politics. So one of the things I want to focus on is how we can show how taking on private financing is taking on this fundamental democratic threat.

And another is race. Ninety percent of certain key donors are white. Racism and structural racism and money in politics are not the same issue—I wouldn’t claim that. But if you want to understand why politicians are so unbelievably silent repeatedly, year after year, on serious and obvious issues of race—one of the reasons is that their donors are white, and pretty rich. A lot of organizations have pointed out that under public financing systems, you see a lot more candidates of color and a lot more women. But you also see the power base behind these candidates is more representative and far less exclusively wealthy. So race and power are the two things that I happen to care a lot about and really want to focus on.

What that means in terms of electoral races is that we’re not going to let any candidates get away with saying that they’re pro-reform unless they’re talking about public financing. They cannot, like Hillary Clinton, talk about a constitutional amendment and not talk about the most obvious and easiest thing to do, which is switch to a public financing model. You’re not an anti-corruption candidate if you’re not talking about public financing.

TAP: Can you talk me through what the pathway to a public financing system would be?

Teachout: I think there are a couple different paths. As organizers, we don’t know the precise route. But the key is to be loud, clear, and precise about what’s wrong, and how we can fix it.

Public financing is such a feminist issue, if you care about women in office. It’s absolutely a race issue, and it’s a class issue, too.
One hope that we have is in New York state, and that the state would become a real hotbed of flipping to a public financing model. The Democrats in the state all say they are in favor of public financing—half of them are lying; half of them are telling the truth. Real organizing in the state involves showing that there’s a political cost to not doing anything, you don’t just get to give lip service. New York is both the easiest and most unbelievably hard and unbelievably exciting place to start. I think there’s a chance there and a lot of great groups are doing work in the state. One of the things that I want to do is lift up the activists, the leaders, and elected officials of color who deeply get how this intersects with race — like the seven women of color [in New York] who never would have been elected without the public financing model. Public financing is such a feminist issue, if you care about women in office. It’s absolutely a race issue, and it’s a class issue, too. There’s this bemoaning of low turnout rates — but people turn out for people they recognize, they turn out for people who are fighting for them. I think [Get Out the Vote] is really connected to how we fund campaigns.

The other way is that there’s a “clean slate” movement around the country where people start basically throwing out anybody who doesn’t support actual anti-corruption laws and doesn’t totally distance themselves from private financing models. My own focus is on candidates and races that are absolutely about this issue. We need real standard-bearers: Candidates who deeply understand that if we don’t deal with this, we can’t deal with almost any other issue. I think it has to do with my own belief that people are motivated by fights and they’re motivated by people like Elizabeth Warren who they see absolutely committed to the fight. It’s a little more confusing when you see people who talk about it but aren’t actually committed to it. So that’s the kind of target races we’re going to be looking at.

But you can’t understate the depths of the problem — we are taking on some of the most powerful forces in world history. I don’t think we can just traipse in there and follow a three-point plan. We’re all trying different methods and I believe in all of what we’re doing. I don’t actually know what’s going to trip something up…we can get there, but I don’t know the precise way we can get there.

TAP: Moving to another big picture part of the campaign finance reform movement, is there still hope for passing a constitutional amendment that repeals Citizens United?

Teachout: It’s not likely right now. There’s a lot of progressive confusion around the relationship between Citizens United and public finance of elections. They’re somehow coded together, and they’re actually different things.

Having said that, I really support the groups that are absolutely serious about organizing around a constitutional convention. But I’m really skeptical of politicians who aren’t serious about it and use the phrase “constitutional amendment” in order to raise money. I don’t take anybody seriously unless they’re also actually talking about public financing.

I’m a little agnostic about whether it happens through judicial change or a constitutional amendment because it’s such a radical misreading of the Constitution in both Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United. But one way or the other, we have such an unbelievably problematic court that has killed our ability to fight corruption, except in anti-trust and campaign financing — which we actually have a lot of room to move in.

TAP: This brings us to Bernie Sanders — he’s been the most vocal and adamant in terms of calling out the role of big money in politics. He’s pushing for a constitutional amendment that repeals Citizens United and he’s said that if elected, he would only appoint a Supreme Court Justice who has publicly denounced the Citizens decision. Do you think he’s pushing forward the conversation or is he just latching onto rhetoric?

Teachout: Early on he was talking a lot about a constitutional amendment, which again, I applaud that. But I don’t think we should confuse that with the importance of a public financing system, because [an amendment] just brings us back to 2009 — which weren’t necessarily the good ol’ days.

But I’ve heard he’s been talking about [public financing] more and I want to hear more of what he has to say. My understanding is that there are two candidates — Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — who’ve talked about public financing. And I’d love to see both them talk about it more. But, Sanders, unlike Clinton, doesn’t talk only about the constitutional amendment.

I’d also like to hear a few more Republican candidates talk about [moving to a voucher system]—so far I haven’t heard anything from them on that.

TAP: Will Mayday be actively endorsing somebody in the presidential race?

Teachout: We still have to figure that out. We’re actually not designed to endorse in a presidential race — we’re a congressional PAC. So that would be a major shift if we decide to endorse in the presidential.

There’s other ways to engage beyond endorsement, too. We are trying to figure out how to engage in 2016, how we can be holding candidates to account without endorsing, and how we can be organizing without endorsing as well. That’s something that we want to be doing.

TAP: How can you work through Mayday, and in the larger reform movement, to make this a broad coalition and not just a partisan issue coming from progressives? Because deep down, beyond all the rhetoric, isn’t this a bipartisan issue?

Teachout: It’s absolutely a bipartisan issue. You find it within the public at-large. Talking to Republicans who aren’t leaders — that’s not very difficult both on anti-trust and on campaign finance reform. I think it’s a lot more complicated when you talk to highly funded leaders — that’s the innate, deeply problematic part of our politics. And it happens on the Democratic side, too, but there’s more shutdown on the Republican side. Big donors on the Republican side do not tend to be excited about public financing.

What I find exciting and where you actually see epic, seismic, structural change is when you’re just serious about truth-telling as purely as possible and trust. [An approach like that] attracts interesting bedfellows. I actually think the more exciting cross-partisanship happens when you’re just really honest and you find out that you just connect on some core issues.

Watch Bill Moyers’s interview with Zephyr Teachout and Lawrence Lessig after the 2014 election.

Justin Miller is a writing fellow for The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter: @by_jmiller.
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