When many hear the phrase “campaign finance reform,” they probably think of Bernie Sanders talking about “big money” corrupting politics during his bid for the Democratic nominee for president.
Though Sanders didn’t win and a billionaire businessman is currently in office, the fight for reform soldiers on. Recently, an anti-corruption movement has been sweeping across Massachusetts, gaining steam through a quintessentially New England practice: town meetings.
“It used to be the primary way of governing,” said Reed Schimmelfing, a spokesperson for the Western Massachusetts chapter of Represent Us. Though cities and some large towns no longer have town meetings, “Massachusetts has maintained the town meeting tradition quite strongly,” he said, which has helped the group pass anti-corruption resolutions at the micro-level.
The resolutions call on elected officials to support the American Anti-Corruption Act and craft their own anti-corruption reform or each jurisdiction. Schimmelfing described what has so far passed as "a set of principles related to issues that need to be fixed for democracy to be on more solid footing."
“Every town that has voted has passed it,” Schimmelfing said. “People are just so excited to express an opinion about government finance and campaign reform.”
If it sounds a bit vague, that's intentional. Represent Us wants each community to define the legislation that would work best for them. But ideally, legislation would touch on public funding for elections, gerrymandering and closing the "revolving door" that he described as when legislators, after losing or resigning, then become lobbyists to their former colleagues. People who identify as Democrats, Republicans and everything in between have supported Represent Us, Schimmelfing said. The movement isn’t a direct response to the election, he added, but they’ve seen a more intense interest since then.
“[It’s related to] the process of the election and watching the ridiculous amount of money that was spent, the sense of Congress getting approval ratings in the single digits. People are fed up,” he said. “They know that their voices aren't what the legislators are really listening to. They’re seeing gerrymandering happening, democracy is being laughed at, and they want to say ‘enough.’”
Represent Us is a group of mostly volunteer citizens who describe the collective as the nation’s largest grassroots, nonpartisan, anti-corruption campaign. There are chapters across the country, and the two in the Boston and Western Massachusetts areas have been busy.
Represent Us was founded in Northhampton, Schimmelfing said, and 24 communities throughout the state, including North Shore towns like Marblehead and Nahant, the nearby (and historic) Lexington and Concord, and all the way out to Amherst, have passed the resolutions — most of them in the last month alone as annual town meetings take place.
Schimmelfing credited the Boston chapter for the idea of utilizing town meetings and their “flood of democracy” to bring up this issue in more areas. Anne Taylor, spokesperson for the Boston chapter, said it’s important to have a statewide movement.
“The idea was to create this small, local grassroot efforts in towns and then gain momentum and gain more people who are interested in our cause,” she said.
The group plans to bring this issue to cities, which involves a more complicated process of going through the city council, and to reach out to state representatives. Taylor is a Cambridge native herself and said that adjusting campaign finance practices is important there.
Craig Kelley, a member of the Cambridge City Council, said he’s been involved in a number of these kinds of conversations. Money’s role in politics is an important thing to address, he said, so that “people who live and work in Cambridge don't find their democracy is being overwhelmed by someone else's money.”
“If you don't have enough money, you can't bridge into politics, and I don't think that’s a good thing,” he said. But when it comes to regulating how much money a candidate can raise, “it’s challenging to get it right.”
Represent Us is working on it, they say. Until there’s concrete legislation, Kelley said, he hopes those involved in local politics are transparent.
“People deserve to know where the money is coming from,” he said.
To learn more, visit represent.us.