The odds seemed to be against much of a turnout for the ‘Occupy the Courts’ demonstration at the U.S District Courthouse on State Street in Springfield on Jan 20.
It was after all, a protest marking the second anniversary of the controversial ‘Citizen’s United’ decision, the Supreme Court ruling that overturned federal limits on how much corporations, unions, and other big donors can give to outside political groups during an election; and it was scheduled for a Friday at noon in downtown Springfield, when tangled streets were sure to be clogged with lunch hour traffic.
At most, I thought, a dozen people would be there, the die-hard activists connected to local branches of the ‘Occupy’ movement and a constellation of other economic justice organizations.
But much to my surprise, about seventy Western Massachusetts residents showed up, armed with homemade signs, populist angst, and even a small marching band.
Could it be that voters are actually starting to care about the issue of campaign finance reform?
Bill Shein is betting that it does.
Shein, a local humorist, columnist, and political activist from the town of Alford is making it a centerpiece of his Democratic primary challenge against longtime Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield and former state Senator and current Register of Deeds for the Berkshire Middle District Andrea Nuciforo of Pittsfield, to represent the newly configured Massachusetts 1st Congressional District.
During the protest, the recently declared candidate approached me in the crowd as I was in a crowd, planning to report on the event. He saw me with my notebook out and introduced himself. He wanted to talk about his campaign, campaign funding, local economies, and more, and I was all too happy to oblige.
Q: So, why are you running for Congress in a primary challenge to [Rep] Richard Neal?
Shein: Yeah, that’s right. The primary is September 6, and I am running for a number of what I think are pretty important reasons. I think we need to have transformational political change, if we’re really going to address the economic problems that we have today in particular. We’ve got a system that is flooded with money from a very narrow part of our society, and I think that is the main reason why we have seen economic conditions for most Americans stagnate and deteriorate for decades now. We need to find a way to elect people to Congress, who are not part of that old system, who are not raising money from political action committees or getting $2500 checks from lobbyists. The effect of that money has been to narrow the agenda, so it drowns out all the good ideas that we need. When Democrats take the same money as Republicans, we end up not hearing the type of things we need to hear in Congress, and I think these are central to making the kind of change we need to make.
Q: Do you think Congressman Neal is part of the problem?
Shein: “Well, I think…. he does things the old way, you know? He raises millions of dollars from status quo money, and I believe that if we have members of congress raising status quo money, we’re going to keep getting status quo results. The ‘Citizens United’ Decision is a reminder that the playing field in this country, the playing field of Democracy, and the playing field of our economy, is tilting ever more towards those that have wealth and power, and against the priorities and interests of the rest of us. One way to combat that is to begin electing people who have no part of that old system.
Q: Well, technically the ban on unlimited direct giving to candidates is still in place, but a lot of the so-called ‘independent organizations, or so-called independent organizations, depending on how you look at them………
Shein: Yeah, right, independent with quotation marks around them.
Q: who can be given and spend any amount on political advertising. But then it gets a little tricky. I mean if you ban a lot of corporate contributions, what about some of those millionaires, such as Sheldon Adelson who is reported to have given millions to a Newt Gingrich super PAC, millionaires that are actually flesh and blood people, what do you do about that?
Shein: Well, I think there are now five different Constitutional amendments that have been introduced in Congress in recent months, largely because of efforts like this [Occupy Springfield], where activists have been pushing for change. What those amendments seek to do in overturning ‘Citizens United’, there are different flavors of how they want to do it, but they want to make it clear that Congress has the ability to regulate campaign finances. That means a robust system of public financing, regulation not only on of how much can be donated but how much can but how much can be spent. Yeah, lets put that in the hands of Congress to say that big money from any source, is destroying our democracy and we need to fix it.
Q: I was reading a piece last night by a former ACLU President, defending the decision…..
Shein: That is right, the ACLU filed a brief in favor of ‘Citizens United’, and I fundamentally disagree with that view. I think we need to recognize that corporations have special advantages in our society, economic advantages, they can now use that power in an almost unprecedented way to distort our legislative process, particularly for further economic advantage. Corporations are made up of good and decent people, who work hard doing some important things, but that institution only has one goal, to make more money, so that’s the single priority. Our priorities as citizens, voters, and human beings are much different. So, we need to make clear that these institutions have a role in our society, but it is not to have an outside influence on public policy.
Q: Do you think a lot of this [resentment of the behavior of corporate America], is about more than just ‘Citizens United’? Do you think a lot of this is about corporate culture in general? Not just that, but how we have moved away from local economies, and more towards a globalized ‘cheap plastic crap’ model for lack of a better term.
Shein: Yeah, cheap plastic crap that ends up in landfills pretty quickly. Yeah absolutely, this is part of a broader conversation we need to have about how our economic system is working. You know, we’re an economic system based on endless consumption, we [also] live on a finite planet, at a certain point we are going to have to confront that we’re already seeing the effects of climate change, recognition that you can’t grow forever and we need to grow the right things. We need to grow in more healthcare, we need to grow in education for everyone. To your question about broader corporate culture, absolutely we need to make sure that we are building a society that puts human interests first. Like I said lots of good people work for corporations, they work hard and do very useful things, but we are in a situation now where the priorities of the institutions they work for are just not in alignment with the rest of us.
Q: Yeah but even in the 60s though there was sort of anti-consumption ad anti-materialism movement, but then we came to where we are now anyway. How do we avoid falling back, even with a Constitutional Amendment?
Shein: ” Sure, look it is a big cultural challenge as well, but let me suggest this: our economy today is flooded with marketing messages to an extent we’ve never seen before. Public spaces are being filled up with billboards. We are surrounded by messaging that says ‘consume more, happiness will come from more consumption’, we all know that’s not true, we all know that’s not true. We know it personally based on the social science research on what really creates happiness in society and contentment in our society. So, what I hope to do in this campaign, among other things, is broaden our conversation about building an economy that works for all of us, and starting to look at other metrics and other ways to measure the success of our society besides just gross domestic product. What are the other things we need to look at? Quality healthcare, education, secure retirement, all these things that are important to us. Gross Domestic Product is not the best way to measure our success. If I get in a car accident today on the way home God forbid, and I need to get my car fixed and some medical care; that’s good for gross domestic product. It is not a good measurement. We need better metrics and with better metrics, and better questions, we can design a system that works better.
Q: It also doesn’t seem to take into account the materials used to make a lot of products.
Shein: Yeah, to my point and your point about finite resources. We create things and six months later they’re in a landfill, and we really need to look out for future generations. We only have so much on planet Earth. We have an increasing population and we need to be much more cognizant of this.
Q: If you impose limits on campaign contributions, how does that not protect incumbents? A lot of incumbents just know more people. They have higher name recognition so they can get lots of money but in smaller amounts. So it sort of, some argue, prevents insurgent candidacies.
Shein: Well I am a huge proponent of public financing of elections, where you can qualify for the ballot with a certain number of signatures, raising small contributions; I think that is step number one . What my argument here in the real campaign is ninety-nine dollar contributions maximum, only from individuals. So I am not going to raise nearly as much money as my opponents, who raise $2500 checks from corporate lobbyists, $5,000 checks from political action committees, millions of dollars. But this is not some ‘pie in the sky’ idea that ‘oh, I wish politics was different’, this is hard-nosed practically reality that if we don’t figure out how to win elections without all that status quo money, we’re just never going to make progress on all these things we’ve just been talking about we will lose more than an election, if we don’t figure out how to do it.
Q: In the election [primary] what do you think your chances are when going up against Congressman Neal? He is well-known here. He was Mayor in the 1980s and he has been in Congress since 1989. You also have another opponent from the Berkshires. What do you think your chances are?
Shein: I think my chances are outstanding. I have only been in the race for four days already the news stories that have been in the ‘Berkshire Eagle’ and the ‘Republican’ here in Springfield has been about one of my core issues, campaign funding. Both the other candidates have responded to my entry into the race, one of them by coming out after years of opposition to public financing , he is now in favor of it. Congressman Neal has come out defending his fundraising, saying that Karl Rove and those folks raise all this money so he has to as well. Well, Karl Rove doesn’t work for me. He is using the argument that has been made for twenty-five years……..
Q: You mean that it would essentially be ‘unilateral disarmament’?
Shein: Right, and that is the argument that has been used for over a quarter century by Democrats. Here is why I reject that argument; the argument has been ‘we need to take that money’ corporate money, lobbyist money, money from a very narrow segment of our society to win. But we’ve been told as rank and file Democrats that it is not going to have any affect, well guess what? Fast forward twenty-five years and look what is happening? Record wealth and income inequality. We just saw a Wall Street-fueled meltdown and an inadequate response to that. Why did the meltdown happen? Republicans and Democrats voted to repeal [the] Glass-Stegal [Act], Republicans and Democrats voted to prevent the regulation of derivatives. That is a direct result of all those years of corporate money, all this money that has narrowed the agenda and made it much more difficult for the people’s priorities to be reflected.
Q: So what you are basically saying, is [that by] continuing to say ‘let’s just do that to survive the next election and then maybe we can do some reforms’, you are saying that in effect, to keep doing that, you are just perpetuating the problem?
Shein: I believe so, absolutely. Look, I am sympathetic to the argument that we need to win elections and that the Democrats need to win. But now after decades, Democrats need to have other options on the ballot like me, they say ‘I’m not going to have any part of that’. I’m only talking small contributions. I am taking a vow to never become a registered lobbyist , which is now the career path of most members of Congress and I believe that if you are unwilling to make that vow to never become a lobbyist and you are aspiring to serve in the Congress, that is a disqualifying decision, that is all part of the old way of doing things. All of that money has had an affect, we have seen it for decades now. When there are options on the ballot and voters can say ‘hey, there is someone who stands with me and doesn’t stand with the big banks or the Wall Street lobbyists’. Sure they don’t have as much money, but that is why we are doing a volunteer fueled campaign. That is why we are going neighbor to neighbor, community by community. That is the way I believe you build real political power not just to win elections, but to really bring about change.
Let me just go back to one thing you said before about local economies, that is central to what I am talking about. I am a big supporter of what is happening here in Springfield with the ‘Well Spring Initiative’, which is modeled after what they are doing in Cleveland, to build large-scale worker-owned cooperative businesses that keep our resources local, keep our talent local, and build wealth here in our communities; rather than allowing big corporations [or] transnational corporations to come in and drain resources away from our communities. We want to build things here, to keep people here. We want expertise to be developed here, that is the path out of poverty, that is the path to opportunity for folks in our community. It is not with more big box stores and it is not with chains [chain stores] that drain their profits away to some central office.”
Q: The ‘Citizens United’ decision also applied to unions and other non-profits, do you think they too should have to comply by the same rules as corporations in regard to campaign donations? I mean most 527 groups aren’t technically corporations.
Shein: I’m in favor of the…… like I said, there are a few flavors of the Constitutional amendment that have been introduced. I am largely in favor of the one put forward by ‘Free Speech for People’ which makes clear that any kind of corporation, even non-profit corporations should not be making direct expenditures for elections, period.
Q: One more question, about the ‘Occupy Wall Street movement’…..
Q: Do you think that since the eviction from Zucotti Park that the movement has died down a bit, or that it has melded into the overall dialogue of the country?
Shein: Well, I think a couple of things. First, I was at ‘Occupy Wall Street’ the first time the city threatened to clear the park, and a call went out to folks to come down there, to protect the park; that was in October. I happened to be there and it was an incredibly empowering experience. There were about 2500 of us there at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning, and we found out that the city was backing off. I’ll tell you what I’ve learned with my involvement in New York and also in the Berkshires, the conversations people are having the new awareness of income inequality, the new awareness of the things we have to do— that doesn’t go away just because there is not an encampment in New York right now or anywhere else.
In the Berkshires we now have a weekly ‘general assembly’, we’ve got over 500 people who are part of these organizations; probably forty or fifty every week at the general assemblies. We have working groups that are working on education events, and direct actions; keep in mind this all started for us in the Berkshires a little more than three months ago. There are people involved who have never been involved in activism before, all of that is the beginning of a movement. This is a remarkable launch to something that is going to have a huge influence not just on the electoral system, but on the reclaiming of political power in the community. So, just because there are not encampments right now, the way people change their minds is not because of one speech that they hear or a book that they read; it takes time. It is a combination of their experiences, people that they meet things that they read, movies they see, and that takes some time. So all the experiences that people have had in just the last couple of months, that is going to have a lasting impact.