Marissa Brown, Executive Director for the Democracy Initiative, joined members of Rachel’s Network to talk about her work to combat money’s influence on government. We asked Marissa to elaborate on the movement’s recent victories and how the environmental community and funders can get involved.
What is the biggest challenge we face in getting money out of politics?
People feel that elected officials are out of touch, driven by money and power and unresponsive to the voices of Americans. As a result, citizen engagement is at an all-time low. The 2014 elections were the lowest turnout elections since World War II and it’s because people think their vote doesn’t matter.
We can no longer let the small group of “good government” organizations work alone. We need to bring the power of other movements into the fight to restore the health of our democracy. The Democracy Initiative does this by bringing together a network of environmental, worker’s rights, civil rights and democracy organizations.
If you could remove one obstacle that prevents us from implementing solutions to this challenge, what would it be?
The number one obstacle is the sense people have that change is not possible. They see gridlock and feel helpless in the face of a problem that seems too big to solve.
The only antidote is showing people that change is possible. There has been unprecedented local activism on the issue in the last year. On the anniversary of Citizens United, there were 60 events in 50 cities when the Supreme Court decided to allow donors to uncap the number of campaigns donors can finance. We need to educate, mobilize, and empower Americans to fight for their democracy.
What is the most promising avenue for success on this issue?
We must prioritize local reforms. Cities, towns, counties, and states are the laboratories of democracy and we must engage people to experiment.
Maryland’s largest county, Montgomery County, passed small donor public financing legislation in 2014. The bill allows candidates to raise low-dollar donations from individuals to qualify for matching public funds. Passing this bill changed the entire conversation in Maryland. The new Republican governor is sponsoring a bill to refill the coffers of the gubernatorial public finance fund; elected officials in two counties are planning on sponsoring similar legislation, and more are in the pipeline.
Maine Citizens for Clean Elections just qualified a ballot initiative for the November election which will revitalize their public finance system and efforts are afoot in Seattle to do the same.
There are also activists working on resolutions and ballot initiatives to overturn Citizen’s United through a Constitutional amendment in Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, New York and Washington. Bills that would empower shareholders to know more about corporate political spending or require more campaign donation transparency are moving in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. And groups in New Hampshire are mobilizing to call attention to the issue of money in politics throughout the presidential primaries.
Funders are also playing a part. Under the leadership of Open Society Foundations and the Piper Fund, the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation launched a working group for funders on Money in Politics. They’ve been looking at the connections between the environment and money in politics, and creating tools to advance that work.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I am incredibly proud of the work done by DI organizations. Just within the environmental community, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, and League of Conservation Voters all launched initiatives and campaigns around this issue. The Greenpeace report, The Kingpins of Carbon and their War on Democracy, links the money given to support climate deniers to the money spent to impede democracy. The Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, CA authored an op-ed on overturning Citizens United. Friends of the Earth joined Greenpeace, Sierra Club and others to pursue public financing in New York. And NRDC joined all of these groups and 141 others in signing the Unity Statement of Principles to preserve our democracy.
What woman environmentalist inspires you? Why?
I can’t pick just one! I’m fortunate to work with Annie Leonard who runs Greenpeace. Just talking to her makes me want to get busy doing more. Her work early in her career tracking international waste dumping led to the 1992 Basel Convention, an international treaty to protect less developed countries from the dumping of hazardous waste. I am grateful that Greenpeace and by extension the Democracy Initiative of which Greenpeace is a founding member, has the benefit of her wisdom and energy.
I’m also privileged to know Winsome McIntosh. She served on the boards of both League of Conservation Voters and Alliance for Justice when I worked at those organizations. Her commitment to building institutions that will do the work well into the future speaks to her transformative vision. Rachel’s Network is one of the many seeds she has planted, tended and grown over the years. I admire her dedication, persistence, and visionary leadership.