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Jim Kenyon: Treading on Big Money

After retiring from college teaching and moving to Lyme, Rick Bourdon was “looking for a cause” to dive into. The quest took him to a lecture that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig gave a few years ago at Dartmouth College about campaign finance reform. Shortly thereafter, Bourdon joined Lessig’s grassroots crusade to get big money out of politics.

Nothing like tilting at windmills.

This week, Bourdon, 64, has laced up his walking boots to take part in the “New Hampshire Rebellion” that Lessig is leading. The 185-mile walk started Saturday in Dixville Notch and ends Jan. 24 in Nashua. “If my feet and knees cooperate, I hope to be around at the finish,” said Bourdon, speaking at the march’s kickoff event in Hanover last Thursday. (I met Bourdon a couple of years ago playing tennis, and judging from the way he moves around the court, he shouldn’t have much difficulty.)

The march, which has drawn a small band of 30 or so diehards in the early going, is intended to draw attention to an issue that for years has received only lip service. Polls show that more than 90 percent of Americans think that a national election system driven by large private contributions is broken. At the same time, less than 10 percent of Americans think the system can be fixed.

“There are huge barriers to overcome,” said Bourdon. “But as long as people believe (that the problem can’t be fixed), it’s not going to change.”

As Lessig put it, campaign finance reform is “not the most important issue, but it’s the first issue.” For instance, “We’re not going to get anywhere on global warming until we can overcome the influence of big oil,” said Bourdon, who grew up in Stowe, Vt., and graduated from Dartmouth in 1971.

Bourdon was in the audience again last Thursday when Lessig encouraged people packed into an auditorium at Dartmouth’s Rockefeller Center to join the effort to make campaign finance reform a front-burner issue.

On average, members of Congress spend two to five hours a day “dialing for dollars, trying to raise the money they need to get back to Washington,” Lessig told the crowd of more than 150 people. The upside is they can’t do any more damage when they’re raising money, I guess, but “the money restricts the people who can run and the issues they can put on the table,” said Lessig.

The perpetual fundraising has enabled the “super rich” to hijack the election process.

“It’s a corruption problem,” said Lessig. But not in the way that most people think. Congressmen aren’t being slipped brown paper bags stuffed with cash. (Most of them, anyway. Remember former U.S. Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana? The FBI found $90,000 in his freezer in 2006.)

For the most part, however, the campaign fundraising conducted by politicians in Washington, D.C., is perfectly legal, said Lessig.

“It doesn’t matter if they are on the left or the right. Their No. 1 job is raising money for themselves and their party.”

So what can be done about it?

It’s no surprise that Lessig supports a move to publicly funded campaigns. But with a twist. Instead of the government doling out money directly to candidates, he’d like to see a voucher system. The vouchers, funded by tax dollars, would go to citizens who could spend them on candidates of their choosing.

“It shrinks the power of K Street, where the lobbyists work,” he said.

At last Thursday’s lecture, a student asked Lessig if he was worried about the repercussions of instigating a war on “America’s elite.” (I imagine quite a few wealthy donors are Ivy League alums. Maybe even trustees.) “The great thing about having tenure is I don’t care if they attack us,” said Lessig. “It would mean that they’re afraid. Right now, they’re ignoring us.”

After Lessig spurred his interest a few years ago, Bourdon joined the board of Coalition for Open Democracy (COD), the Concord-based campaign reform organization behind the New Hampshire Rebellion.

I’m not sure that walking around the state toting backpacks qualifies as a rebellion. But starting small is probably a good idea.

Campaign finance reform isn’t like gun control or abortion. It’s not an issue that most people (Bourdon being an exception) get excited about. Which is just the way that entrenched politicians, lobbyists and deep-pocketed campaign funders want to keep it.

This month’s march follows in the footsteps of New Hampshire’s own “Granny D,” who became something of a national celebrity 15 years ago when she walked across the country at age 89 to highlight the issue.

Bourdon, who was a livestock geneticist at Colorado State University before moving to the Upper Valley, and other COD members are planning two more marches prior to the New Hampshire presidential primary in early 2016.

“We want to make politicians move this issue up on their priority list by creating a stigma to their chasing big dollars,” he said.

In the last four days, Bourdon walked 58 miles. He’s taking a break today to drive his son Allen to Logan Airport in Boston. Allen, a firefighter and EMT who lives in California, spent a few days walking with his dad.

The walk is “starting to get some press, and more people are recognizing us,” Bourdon told me Tuesday. “We’re getting a good response from the big logging trucks. They seem to be in our corner.”

Now if they could only get around the road blocks.