Harvard prof. embarks on 185-mile trek to battle campaign corruption

Lawrence Lessig hopes to convince New Hampshire voters to make campaign finance reform top issue in 2016 primaries

Author, academic and political activist Lawrence Lessig attends the conference on Making Art And Commerce Thrive In The Hybrid Economy at the New York Public Library on Feb. 26, 2009 in New York City.
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, an 88-year-old woman named Dorris Haddock sensed that something was seriously amiss with the way campaigns were financed in the United States. Affixing a sign that said simply “Campaign Finance Reform” to her chest, she embarked on a 3,200 mile walk across 12 states to rally support behind measures to rid the political system of corruption and influence.

Haddock is credited with helping to galvanize public will around the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act, which was signed into law in 2002. Nonetheless, two months before she died at the age of 100, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission decision, which undid many of the limits put in place on campaign finance and heralded a new era in unprecedented spending by special interests and corporations.

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig hopes to take up Haddock's unfinished business Saturday as he starts off on a smaller version of her walk. Lessig will trek 185 miles in Haddock’s home state of New Hampshire, hoping to convince voters there to catapult campaign finance to a top-tier issue in the 2016 presidential election, where the Granite State plays an outsize role as an early primary state. He has dubbed the effort “the New Hampshire rebellion.”

Hoping that the frigid temperatures of the last two weeks let up, Lessig will start his march on Jan. 11, the first anniversary of the suicide of his good friend, Aaron Swartz, the famed Internet activist who first turned Lessig onto the issue of corruption in the political system. The “New Hampshire rebellion” will end in Nashua at a birthday party for Granny D, as Haddock is known, on what would have been her 104th birthday on Jan. 24.

Lessig contends that campaign finance has deteriorated further from when Granny D decided to set off on her walk — around the same time that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., launched his first presidential campaign in New Hampshire, making campaign finance reform one of his signature issues.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the two major parties moved into a state of permanent warfare, which consequently led to a never-quenched thirst for cash, Lessig said. The paralysis in Washington has been further exacerbated by big checks cut by corporations and special interests, which make it nearly impossible for Congress to move on almost any significant agenda item, from immigration reform to climate change.

“When McCain and Granny D made this their issue, they were ahead of their time. But now it’s hard to look at Washington and not see that the city has been hobbled,” Lessig said. “The way campaign funds are raised in Washington distorts what lawmakers can do and work on and makes it impossible to get any sensible reform on the left or right.”

Lessig and his band of 15 to 20 additional walkers plan to stop in more than a dozen towns over two weeks, holding events and talking to residents. The goal is that at each campaign event held in New Hampshire in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential elections, at least one voter will ask the presidential candidate— Democrat or Republican — what his or her plan is to address campaign finance reform.

There’s historical precedent for New Hampshire being particularly amenable to the idea of reform. McCain successfully ran on it in 2000 in the state. Moreover, voters there tend to be independent-minded, and they have been known for their in-your-face questioning style in the many town halls hosted before the primary.

“It’s a natural issue for that state, and it’s natural because people perceive of it as cross-partisan, yet they think that nothing can be done about it,” Lessig said. “The basic slogan of this movement is, ‘Are you going to play the game or are you going to change the game?’”

Of course, turning campaign finance into a presidential election issue is not a cure-all. President Obama ran on a vow to reform the way elections are run in 2008 — before he ran a $1 billion campaign for re-election in 2012 with donors both big and small.

“It’s not enough to get a president, but it’s necessary to get a president,” Lessig said.  

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