Monthly Archives: April 2015

Case Study: Senator Robert Casey

Office:  U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania

Goal:  Get the Senator to become a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act

March-May, 2010

by Frank Kirkwood

In early 2010, I helped start the Fair Elections Committee in Pittsburgh in support of the Fair Election Now Act in the 111th Congress.  We hoped to get our Senator, Robert Casey, a Democrat, to co-sponsor of the bill.  He had joined the Senate in 2007 but had never co-sponsored a public funding of elections bill.

Using our individual organizational contacts, the Committee was able to arrange meetings with seven groups from Pittsburgh to Erie.  The groups included labor, single-payer healthcare, student, civil society, unofficial Democratic party, and religious groups.  Typically the meeting size was a dozen to several dozen members, mostly activist types.

With each group I gave a presentation about the Act and the need for it.  The audiences were all very receptive.  When I explained that our other senator, Arlen Specter, a Republican, was a sponsor of the Act but Casey, the Democrat, was not, people were baffled.  I encouraged all to contact Casey’s office and ask him, “Why not?”.

I was invited by a religious group, Common Good/Common Wealth, to attend one of their periodic meetings with Senator Casey’s staff.  The topic of the meeting was to be the Fair Elections Now Act.  About a week before the meeting, without public explanation, Casey became a co-sponsor.  At the meeting, I asked Casey’s aide why Casey had decided to become a co-sponsor.  He didn’t know.

In the absence of any alternative explanation, I believe he became a co-sponsor because of the little bit of pressure we were able to apply from several places in the western part of the state and his resulting discomfort in having to face the, “Why not?”, questions.

During the following Congress, I visited Casey’s Washington office and met with another aide.  I asked why Casey had not co-sponsored the same bill in the new Congress.  He told me that the Senator was co-sponsoring fewer pieces of legislation this session but that, perhaps, it was an “oversight” that he had not co-sponsored again.

Other than the one occasion described here, in the years since then, Senator Casey has never again co-sponsored any similar bill.

LESSONS LEARNED

It can be easy to get Democratic members of Congress to become co-sponsors.  Most citizen/activists involved with the Democrats understand the problem of money-in-politics and are eager to move toward a solution.  On the Democratic side at least, becoming a co-sponsor can be done at no political cost by incumbents.  Additionally, and most importantly, becoming a co-sponsor has great benefits for an incumbent as it gets the activists back home to calm down.  An incumbent’s failure to co-sponsor (when asked) could serve as a rallying point for a challenger in the next election.  Co-sponsoring takes the heat out of that issue – even if the member would never actually vote to pass it.  We should insist that those candidates who want our support must show their support for our cause in a public and meaningful way.

If you have had interactions with your legislators about money-in-politics issues and would like to share them, please send them to TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com.

Case Study: Congressman Jason Altmire

Office:  U.S. House, PA 4

Elections:  2006, 2008, 2010, 2012

by Frank Kirkwood

In 2005, I created a website called CleanElectionsPA.org.  The purpose was to gather and post candidates’ statements about publicly funded elections.  I contacted all candidates for the Pennsylvania Legislature and Governor in the 2006 elections, as well as U.S. House candidates in Pennsylvania.  I asked them to make a statement about publicly funded elections, in favor or against, and I then posted their statements on-line.

Among those candidates was Jason Altmire of the 4th Congressional District, where I lived at the time.  He and several other Democrats were seeking to challenge Melissa Hart, the Republican incumbent.  Altmire sent me a favorable statement about publicly funded elections and I posted it.  At a public forum, I challenged all of the Democratic candidates to address the issue.  Altmire spoke with passion and conviction, saying that if there was one thing he would fix in Washington, it was the money-in-politics problem.  Altmire won the primary.

Between the primary and general elections, Common Cause, Public Campaign, and Public Citizen, put up a website calling for candidates to take the “Voters First” Pledge, a pledge asking candidates to state their support for publicly funded elections and other reforms.  Altmire agreed to sign it.  He also stated his support for publicly funded elections in Project Vote Smart’s 2006 “Congressional National Political Awareness Test”.

Publicly funded elections became something of an issue in the heavily contested general election campaign.  Hart ran radio ads criticizing Altmire’s support for it.  Altmire won.

After the election, in an article about business self-interests eagerly giving money to Altmire and other newly-elected member of Congress, he was quoted as saying, “I’d support and work hard to pass any bill that takes money out of politics”.

He signed the “Voter’s First” Pledge again, ahead of his re-election bid in 2008.

He never signed on as a co-sponsor of the Fair Elections Now Act during his three terms.  By 2011, he was one of only 10 Democrats in the House to vote to terminate public financing of presidential election campaigns.

His district had been heavily re-drawn and re-numbered (now the 12th) ahead of the 2012 election.  He lost the primary in 2012 in a low-turnout election dominated by union voters, a group Altmire had antagonized over the years.  The district went Republican in the general election.

LESSONS LEARNED

Having been “full cycle” with this candidate on this issue, I have to say the Altmire played the situation pretty well.  He is a politician and, as such, brings a significant amount of self-advancement and self-preservation to his interactions with reformers.

Altmire’s support of reform was beneficial to his efforts to win his first election.  Once he became an incumbent, he was in a much better position to generate payments to his re-election campaign. There was no political cost to him for his failure to actually support reform as promised or for his vote to end public funding on the Presidential level.  I would like to think that his primary loss in 2012 was, in part, due to his reneging on reform, but it was not.  Altmire and his opponent were both well-funded, re-districted incumbents.  Neither candidate was in a position to attack the other on the money-in-politics issue.

In the end, Altmire got what he wanted from reformers (our support) and reformers got very little.  We did get him to state his support for reform, to us, but not to the broader public. He used the CleanElectionsPa website and the “Voter’s First” Pledge website to tell reformers what we wanted to hear.  He never posted support for publicly funded elections on his campaign or official Congressional websites.

Reformers need to use politicians as politicians use us – to advance our cause.  As discussed in “Our Political Revolution“, we should insist that those candidates who want our support must show support for our cause in a public and meaningful way.

If you have had interactions with your legislators about money-in-politics issues and would like to share them, please send them to TrustworthyGovernment@gmail.com.