“The People Rule”- Can it be more than a motto?

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight Foundation or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Today’s guest blogger is another example of how all citizens regardless of their professions, can be players in participatory politics. Joining us from Arkansas is Paul J. Spencer. Paul has taught Political Science and History at Catholic High School for Boys for the last 13 years.  He is Chairman of the Regnat Populus 2012 Ballot Question Committee. You can follow him on Twitter @RegnatPopulusAR.

Teaching Government and Politics to high school seniors year after year begins to have a curious effect on the teacher.  I have known other teachers and professors before me that evolved to being confirmed Socialists upon their retirement.  Perhaps it is the youthful innocence of engaged students that begin to observe that money has a greater role in the political process than do actual people that causes this evolution of thought over time.  For myself, there came a time at which I felt that merely teaching my students the problems in our American political system was no longer enough.

I began to recognize a self-perpetuating cycle in American electoral politics today. This whirlpool consists of the following components:

  • First, a lack of electoral and lobbying transparency that allows moneyed interests to have a greater voice in the electoral process than actual voters.
  • Second, a lack of responsiveness of our elected officials to their constituents who have very little to do with the success of the politician’s reelection campaign.
  • Third, a lack of true representation for the interests of citizens above those of money.
  • Fourth, a creation of a culture of lack of accountability to voters within the body politic.
  • Fifth, voter “disconnect” with their elected representatives.
  • Sixth, voter apathy and disengagement with the political process in general.

The sixth component curtails citizens’ ability to properly channel their dissatisfaction with the political process towards a productive end, thusly enabling the cycle to begin anew.

I imagine I began to feel the need to free myself from Vicious Cycle Component #6 after the infamous Citizen’s United vs. FEC Supreme Court ruling  in 2010 which gave corporations unlimited spending ability in political campaigns.  This, coupled with the global financial meltdown of 2008 and the appalling lack of accountability our government placed on those responsible, compelled me to attempt to engage as best I could in fighting to at least expose these injustices as so many ordinary Americans have done before me.  My wife and I joined the Occupy movement in Little Rock, Arkansas last October.  We participated in marches and General Assemblies but over time felt a desire to engage IN the political process to try to effect some change through legislation.  We met at a downtown pizza joint and discussed various options that could be attempted with interested academics and activists.  It turned out that my wife’s brother’s best friend from high school had been working on campaign and lobbying reform (Little Rock is a small town) and we hooked up with him.  We envisioned using the Ballot Initiative process to craft a law to curb some of the worst ethics abuses in a state which had just received a D+ from the Center for Public Integrity on its “Corruption Risk Report Card“. We formed a Ballot Question Committee whose name was derived from Arkansas’ State Motto: “Regnat Populus” or “The People Rule”.   To make a long story short, with much collaboration of generously donated legal talent, various Occupiers and also fellow teachers I work with, The Regnat Populus 2012 Ballot Question Committee finally birthed The Campaign Finance and Lobbying Act of 2012.  The components of the Act in brief are to:

  • Disallow direct corporate contributions in Arkansas elections (as the law currently provides in Federal elections).
  • Raise the “cooling-off period” for the revolving door from legislator to lobbyist from the current 1 year waiting period to 2 years.
  • Disallow any gifts or meals whatsoever from lobbyists to legislators (not even a cup of coffee).

Because our movement arose spontaneously in response to real events in America today (namely, the Occupy Wall Street movement), we do not have the luxury of time and do not have large moneyed backers to accomplish our goal of 62,507 signatures by a July 6th deadline.    However, we certainly do have public opinion on our side.  A recent Arkansas poll showed us to have a 69% voter approval rate for this initiative across all political demographics.  We envisioned a wide spread network of canvassers taking action as citizens to break the cycle of voter apathy and political unresponsiveness.   That is the challenge we now face.  Almost every one of us involved in this committee has full time jobs.  We are teachers, a Presbyterian minister, a nurse, an engineer, a non- profit staffer, retired military, and students combined with the generously donated talent of attorneys that want to work to have a system in which legislators are as accountable to the voters as they are to the influence peddlers in state government.

Thus far, we have garnered $2,525 from individuals that has covered printing and postage costs.  There has been slow response from progressive groups in Arkansas to back the measure as noted by Dr. Jay Barth, Political Science professor at Hendrix University in a recent article.  Some fear the measure may hurt the means that legislators gain information, namely from conferences sponsored by industry.  These travel expenses would be banned by the Act.  This point elucidates the game-changing nature of this Initiative.  Putting lobbyists for childrens’ and anti-poverty advocacy groups, and environmental groups on a level playing field with Koch brother funded lobbyists that want to develop around the lake that supplies Little Rock’s drinking water would completely change the way business is done at the Capitol.

We currently stand at a critical juncture.  We have approximately 100 volunteer canvassers working throughout the state.  We have been endorsed by the local and state chapters of the Sierra Club and have state citizen advocacy groups actively canvassing and working with us.  We have been encouraged by the response of Arkansans when asked if they would like to sign our petition, replying “HELL, yes” after hearing the components and then volunteering to canvass themselves.

Many political insiders have scoffed at our “naïve” attempts to face the odds that stand before us.  But I take comfort in the wisdom of the late historian, Howard Zinn, whose perspective over America’s long span of history is useful to contemplate today.

“TO BE HOPEFUL in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

We do still need more financial support to spread canvassing efforts to include supporting those that would like to canvass full time.  We do still have a great challenge before us.  But events related to this campaign are unfolding on a daily basis in new and encouraging ways.   We believe that the corrupting influence of money in our political system is the defining issue America faces today.  NOW is the time to act to allow the people to truly rule.

 

Please visit our website www.thepeoplerule2012.com for more information.  I’m just going to come right out and say it-any donations would be greatly appreciated.

Interested in writing a guest blog for Sunlight? Email us at guestblog@sunlightfoundation.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

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