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Jim Kenyon: Walking the Walk for Campaign Finance Reform


Sunday, April 17, 2016

While many people are fed up with the corrupting influence of big money in politics, Rick Bourdon is one of the rare individuals willing to put his foot, or rather, feet where his mouth is. Last week, Bourdon, a retired livestock geneticist who lives in Lyme, completed the nine-day “Democracy Spring” march from Philadelphia to Washington. He was among roughly 100 protesters intent on making campaign finance reform a front-burner issue to walk the entire 140 miles.

How did Bourdon celebrate?

By getting arrested.

Bourdon, 66, followed up the march by participating in a Democracy Spring protest that attracted more than 600 demonstrators to Washington last Monday. He was among 426 people led away in handcuffs for refusing to leave the steps of the Capitol during the nonviolent protest.

“The goal was to raise awareness, and also present the facts that there are actually things we can do about getting the ‘dark money’ out of politics,” Bourdon said.

Public financing of elections tops a list that also includes passing a constitutional amendment to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United. In that case, the court essentially concluded that corporations are people, which gives them a First Amendment right to spend massive piles of undisclosed cash on elections.

In 2014, at Bourdon’s suggestion, I attended a Dartmouth lecture given by Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig. 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 said. The perpetual fundraising has allowed the “super rich” to hijack the election process, he added.

For me, Lessig’s talk was somewhat enlightening. But by then, Bourdon had already become a true believer in the need for campaign finance reform.

As long as wealthy donors exert leverage on politicians, it will be difficult to tackle bigger issues, such as global warming, Bourdon said. “The powerful interests that don’t want change, which in the case of global warming is the fossil fuel industry, make it impossible to get things done,” he said.

I met Bourdon a few years ago on Dartmouth’s indoor tennis courts. From first-hand experience, I can tell you that the slightly built Bourdon is the kind guy who whizzes an ace past you, then apologizes for it.

He’s that mild-mannered.

“He’s always been an activist, going back to the anti-war movement of the ’60s, but he’s never been flashy about it,” said Lucie Bourdon, who has been married to him for 43 years. “When he retired, he wanted to get involved in something that makes a difference.”

Bourdon, who grew up in Stowe, Vt., was a Dartmouth undergraduate in the summer of 1968 when he traveled to Chicago for the tumultuous Democratic Convention.

Shortly thereafter, Bourdon put his protest days behind him — until now. “It’s been a long hiatus,” he said. “Life intervenes.”

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1971, he embarked on an academic career that eventually landed him at Colorado State University. Upon retirement, the Bourdons returned to the Upper Valley.

About five years ago, Bourdon attended a small gathering of a New Hampshire grass-roots organization called Coalition for Open Democracy. After Gordon Allen, the group’s co-chair, finished his talk, Bourdon raised his hand.

He had a question regarding Buckley v. Valeo. The 1976 Supreme Court decision overturned spending limits on federal campaigns, but most people had forgotten about it, or were unaware of its significance.

“I knew right then that Rick was someone who had researched the whole campaign finance system,” said Allen, a former state lawmaker from Antrim, N.H. “He’s very smart and soft-spoken. But when he talks, you listen.”

In the last few years, Bourdon has walked about 350 miles in the name of campaign finance reform. In January 2014, he trekked a long stretch of the “New Hampshire Rebellion” that went from Dixville Notch to Nashua.

At a meeting last Thursday in Concord, Bourdon briefed the Coalition’s governing board, of which he is now treasurer, on his recent travels.

The long march from Philadelphia to Washington took the 100 protesters, including five representatives of the New Hampshire Rebellion, through downtrodden neighborhoods and across congested highways. Most nights were spent sleeping on church floors.

Other than an occasional passerby shouting “Get a job,” Bourdon said, his spirits were buoyed by the large number of motorists who honked in support.

In Washington, they joined hundreds of other demonstrators from across the country. “Police, badly underestimating the potential crowd, initially brought a single bus to Capitol Plaza to haul the protesters away,” reported NPR.

According to New Hampshire Rebellion’s website, Bourdon and Joe Magruder, a retired reporter for The Associated Press, were the only New Hampshire protesters to be arrested Monday. Police warned demonstrators several times to exit the Capitol steps before ordering them to put their hands behind their backs. Why did Bourdon opt for being arrested instead of just leaving?

“It was on my bucket list,” he said.

Bourdon spent seven hours in handcuffs at a police warehouse before being released. The next day, he paid a $50 fine and headed for home.

Just as I’ve seen him do on the tennis court too many times to count, Bourdon didn’t make a big deal of getting arrested on the Capitol steps for a cause he believes deeply in.

“It wasn’t Selma,” he said.