Walk Highlights Influence Of Money in U.S. Politics

Sunday, May 24, 2015
Lebanon — The gathering on the grassy green of Lebanon’s Colburn Park late Saturday morning had many names associated with it — The New Hampshire Rebellion, the Walk for Democracy, Open Democracy and Walking the Talk.

But the goal, which drew about 50 people to the beginning of a six-mile walk to Hanover, was singular — campaign finance reform.

As late arrivals straggled in, OpenDemocracy Executive Director Dan Weeks, Lebanon Councilor Karen Liot Hill and New Hampshire state Rep. Patricia Higgins, D-Hanover, gave short speeches about the effort to get a slate of presidential candidates talking about getting money out of politics. With eight presidential candidates scheduled to host 16 events in New Hampshire over the next week alone, the organizers said, now is the time that a public conversation about one of the most pervasive problems in politics can do the most good.

This was the sixth public walk sponsored by the group, which is powered by politically active individuals whose participation often is solicited at Rotary clubs, churches, libraries and colleges.

“These actions are designed to make campaign finance reform the central issue of the 2016 presidential campaign,” Weeks said to the crowd, which trended toward the gray-haired but included a fair sampling of college students and young families with children in tow.

Campaign workers handed out American flags, small fliers with lyrics of a protest song, leaflets to give to the public and handmade signs bearing slogans such as “Stop Corporate Cronyism” and “A Buck is Not a Ballot.”

Before they set off, the organizers reviewed safety rules to reduce the chance of a walker being left behind or struck by a passing car.

Campaign finance reform is an important issue to the walkers, but also a fairly bloodless one.

The walk, and the friendly discussions between the walkers, were more congenial than charged as they started off on their six-mile journey. They formed a long, ragged line of humanity that split the distance between heavy brick edifices surrounding the green, including the Mascoma Savings Bank and Citizens Bank.

Similar public demonstrations about issues like domestic violence, racism, war or oil spills often come with fiery rhetoric, hoarse shouts of anger, tears and graphic pictures that make it easier to stoke the fires of public interest.

But the issue of campaign finance reform can lack that natural emotional hook, which left many of the walkers making arguments steeped in numbers and abstractions, appealing to the intellect, rather than the heart.

“There was a Princeton study that shows that the lower 95 percent of the population has no impact on what bill will be passed,” said Sophie Connor, 18, a freshman at Dartmouth College who came to the walk with her boyfriend, Robert Wright, also 18.

The study she’s referring to, which was published in April 2014 by researchers Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens, showed that, on a variety of measures, government followed the interests of wealthy individuals and industry lobbying groups.

“Something like 96 percent of people think money in politics is an important issue, but 91 percent of people think nothing can be done about it,” said Wright.

They’re the kind of arguments that can demonstrate the pervasiveness of the problem, but can also be really discouraging. “There’s this sense of futility,” said Connor.

Connor and Wright both said the issue is personally important to them as a matter of basic fairness.

“I’m not in that 5 percent, and I want a say,” said Connor.

“If we can fix this, we can fix anything,” Wright said.

For those who are passionate about the issue, like Weeks, campaign finance reform overshadows all other political concerns because they see it as the root of many other problems.

“It cuts across every issue I care about,” Weeks said. “It’s about who has a voice and who’s represented in the first place.”

Lebanon resident David Monmaney, 45, who came to check out the protest after seeing fliers posted around town, said he felt strongly about the issue.

“Campaign finance ranks right up there with black people shouldn’t get shot by police and the minimum wage should allow a person to make a living,” he said.

Six miles later, as they entered Dartmouth green, the walkers folded back into a cohesive group and sang the lyrics to the song they’d been given, a prelude to another round of speeches and a performance by a man pretending to be a greedy politician.

Weeks addressed the crowd again.

“We must nominate presidential candidates in both parties who will make getting money out of politics their No. 1 issue,” he said.

Off the stage, Weeks said that, though the issue has traditionally been a tough sell, it is getting easier.

“I think that’s changing. I’ve seen a huge explosion,” he said. “Hopelessness is the biggest challenge, and we can overcome that.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.