Space Coast Progressive Alliance

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Thursday, 17 February 2011 19:49

Democracy Matters 2011 National Student Summit

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I was honored to represent Space Coast Progressive Alliance this January at the Democracy Matters 10th Annual National Student Summit in Albany, NY. Democracy Matters is a national nonprofit organization that trains students on more than 50 campuses nationwide in activism for political and social change, using Clean Elections as the focal issue. The annual summit is a training and motivational gathering for campus chapter members. SCPA members will recall that the Democracy Matters Executive Director, Dr. Joan Mandle and her husband Dr. Jay Mandle, professor of economics at Colgate University, gave very interesting and entertaining talks about Clean Elections at the SCPA Christmas social in 2008.

The January summit included about 100 students from more than 20 campuses across the country. The weekend-long event included a speakers panel Friday evening and a full schedule of workshops Saturday and Sunday. The workshops were professionally run by staff members of Democracy Matters, Public Campaign and Common Cause, and were both educational and entertaining. Topics included how to engage an audience in public speaking, how to lobby elected officials, planning and organizing events, and the like. Jay Mandle led a discussion group on international poverty and democratic development in the third world, based on a recent research trip to Bangladesh. Marcus Bass of Common Cause North Carolina gave a presentation and slide show about the Civil Rights movement.

The director of the campaign to introduce Clean Elections to New York held a planning meeting of about thirty campaign workers. The initiative appears to have the support of Governor Cuomo, and shows promise of succeeding this year.

I was able to meet with several members of Public Campaign, Democracy Matters, Citizens’ Action NY, and Common Cause, concerning our Clean Elections activities in Florida, and received some useful guidance for next steps to get our state-wide campaign going.

The keynote speaker was Representative Gary Holder-Winfield, elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2010 to the Connecticut State General Assembly using Connecticut’s new Citizens’ Elections (CE) legislation. Citizens’ Elections is Connecticut’s version of Clean Elections (Clean Elections programs have been operating with great success in Maine and Arizona for several election cycles). Rep. Holder-Winfield gave a brief talk about the process of getting elected under the CE program, then took questions from the floor and engaged in some lively debate with the audience concerning whether there really is a movement toward ending private money control of the political system. He contends that there is no real movement in place yet, and I have to agree with him, at least as far as Florida is concerned. Representative Holder-Winfield made three important points that apply to our situation in Florida.

1) Getting elected under CE requires a great deal of time and effort, meeting constituents face to face. The amount of money collected from each is small (as little as $5), but a large number of small donations and signed petitions are required for a candidate to qualify. Significantly, only constituents in the election district may contribute, and therefore the elected official must pay close attention to the folks back home when making policy decisions and casting votes. The critical point is that CE candidates must focus attention on constituents, one-on-one, in their homes, instead of meeting wealthy, special interest contributors at fund raisers. This important point needs to be worked into grass roots communications when we do outreach and education about Clean Elections in Florida.
2) CE gives legislators independence from special interests, because CE-elected officials do not need wealthy contributors for the next election campaign. When Holder-Winfield entered office, there had been a public desire for years to repeal the death penalty, but the issue was considered untouchable by the state general assembly because of special interest opposition. CE freed him to follow his own wishes and those of his constituents, and he introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty shortly after entering office. In Florida, we not only have the death penalty, but also many policy changes desired by voters and taxpayers that cannot be addressed in Tallahassee under the current privately financed election system. Public financing (Clean Elections) remains the gating issue for bringing policies made in Tallahassee in line with the wants and needs of Florida citizens.
3) The ground must be prepared for Clean Elections. As with other states, Connecticut’s CE legislation grew out of extreme scandal in the state government. But Holder-Winfield makes clear that Connecticut would have lost the opportunity except that a small group of citizens had been working for years to develop public support for the measure. This is where we now stand in Florida. SCPA and a few other organizations have made a small start, but we will have to ramp up the effort considerably before we could mount an effective campaign to bring Clean Elections to Florida.

The most important aspect of this National Student Summit was of course the students themselves. I spoke with many of the participants, ranging from freshmen to seniors, including majors in political science, environmental biology, history, engineering and physics. I found them to be remarkably well informed on political issues in general, and passionate on the topic of election reform and public campaign financing. Democracy Matters’ mission is to train students such as these so that they will be a positive force for social change when they enter the work force. Over its ten year history, thousands of students have come through the program. Whether they all become activists or not, that’s a welcome addition to the ranks of informed voters.

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