By Daymond Steer
CONWAY — A hearty band of a few dozen souls, on a 185-mile anti-corruption march from Dixville Notch to Nashua, stopped at the Eastern Slope Inn recently to make their case for campaign finance reform.
The march, called the New Hampshire Rebellion, is led by Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig who was inspired by New Hampshire icon and campaign finance reform activist "Granny D." The late Monadnock region resident, Doris Haddock, at the age of 88, famously walked across the country in 1999 to call attention to the issue. In the 2000 presidential primary, then candidate John McCain (R-Arizona) made an issue of corruption and won the state. New Hampshire has the first Presidential Primary and a large block of politically educated and independent voters.
Lessig is the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.
Conway resident Dick Pollock, who is participating in the N.H. Rebellion, introduced Lessig at his talk at the Eastern Slope Inn on Jan. 15. Pollock explained that a few years ago he had read one of Lessig's books, "Republic Lost," and at the time he didn't quite know what to make of the professor.
"I thought, 'He's an academic, should I take him seriously?'" said Pollock. "Since then, I drank the Kool-Aid."
About 33 people were on the march through Conway to Tamworth. Some walkers were just there for the day. The N.H. Rebellion made it to Tamworth on Jan. 16. That's roughly the halfway point of their journey. The N.H. Rebellion ends on Jan. 24.
The intention is for the Rebellion to march again in the summer of 2015 and then again in reverse order (from Nashua to Dixville Notch) and arriving in Dixville Notch on the night before Primary Day.
During the walk, Lessig was "struck" by the gap between life as an academic and life as a resident in northern New Hampshire. He said academics are still debating whether money has an "improper influence" over the U.S. government while many New Hampshire residents already think that.
"In the Republic of Cambridge we're mostly liberals, but in Dixville Notch, Errol and Milan in all of those places, there are not as many liberals, I discovered, but there are just as many people who believe that money has an undue influence on our politics," said Lessig.
A reporter asked Freedom resident Maynard Thomson for his analysis of Lessig's key points.Thomson, who attended Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, has served as Carroll County's Republican Committee chairman and has worked as a lawyer who represented some major corporations.
"I'm in sympathy in sharing several of their concerns as I understand them," said Thomson. "I think the word 'corrupt' is probably unfortunate and a little misleading as it implies there's some sort of ideal of good government that could be achieved if only we could get money out of politics and I think that's a pipe dream."
The main point of Lessig's talk on Jan.15 was that a tiny fraction of one percent of Americans are the relevant funders of campaigns. He said politicians cater to those people.
"That's about the same number of people who are named Lester," said Lessig. "That's where we live, Lester Land."
According to Lessig, if the funding pool were spread out, politicians would be more likely to act in the public interest. He said congressional members spend between 30 and 70 percent of their time raising money for re-election.
"The Democratic Campaign Committee, at the beginning of this congress, circulated to all the freshmen members of congress a model daily schedule," said Lessig. "Four hours out of nine every day they were instructed to telephone people to raise money. That doesn't even count what they do at night."
The N.H. Rebellion is intended to raise awareness of the issue and to encourage New Hampshire Presidential Primary voters to ask the candidates what they will do to end systemic corruption in Washington. Lessig needs at least 50,000 New Hampshire residents to join in his effort — something Lessig thinks is achievable. The difference between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Presidential Primary was only 8,000 votes.
Voters will never get what they want until this issue is addressed, said Lessig, adding as examples, liberals will never get progress on climate change and conservatives will never see a simpler tax code.
Lessig says the cause isn't as hopeless as it might seem. In American history there was a time when only white male property owners were allowed to vote. Over time, restrictions were dropped until citizens over the age of 18 could vote.
When asked about proposed solutions like overturning the 17th amendment (the 17th amendment made U.S. Senators directly elected rather than elected by state legislatures) or repealing the Citizens United Supreme Court case, Lessig wasn't really interested in either one of those options.
Repealing the 17th Amendment was suggested by writer Steve MacDonald on New Hampshire based blog Granite Grok. MacDonald's piece was about his reaction to the N.H. Rebellion.
"I don't think overturning it (Citizens United) is necessary or a good idea," said Lessig adding his "progressive friends" would disagree. "The Constitution has been interpreted by even this Supreme Court to permit us to change the way we fund elections without changing or restricting anybody's freedom to spend their money."
Lessig added embattled Toronto Mayor Rob Ford cannot be defeated in an election because the amount of money candidates can spend is limited to the point where incumbents cannot be beat.
Thomson suggests an elimination of of all campaign donation limits but at the same time he'd also like to see campaign contribution donations disclosed over the Internet within 24 hours. This would allow people to see if a politician is in someone's pocket. Thomson questioned the value of having a wider funding pool. After all, said Thomson, a funder can spend a lot of money on a candidate and the candidate might still fail to get votes.
In an interview in December, Lessig said a good example of systemic corruption is the bank swipe fee controversy. Congress spent an inordinate amount of time debating what kind of bank fees can be charged. Lessig said congress fought so hard on this because members were getting money hand over fist from the credit card companies and the retail industry.
Thomson believes the way to deal with this is removing the government's role from the debate on things like bank fees and allowing the competitive market to decide the proper allocation of credit, risk and price. Otherwise the political process will be used to work to the advantage of "the haves" to the disadvantage to those who don't.
"If you want to take money out of politics then take politics out of the process by which we determine who makes money and who doesn't," said Thomson. "As long as we agree that the federal government should decide winners and losers and should decide who gets what, who can enter markets, how much they can charge, etcetera, etcetera, is it realistic to think that you will ever pass laws that will prevent people from trying to influence that to their advantage?"
As an example, Thomson said law schools have to have three-year programs. However, law school can be completed in two years and be much less expensive.
Thomson explained big business leaders love government because government creates rules that prevent competitors from rising up.
"I represented some of the world's largest corporations and I can tell you from many years of listening to CEOs and top management these guys hate free enterprise by and large," said Thomson adding there are some exceptions. "They love government. It's not just because they are big. It's because they already have a pot of assets and they have an incentive in maintaining the status quo and thwarting competition."
One of Lessig's proposed solutions is to have a system where the first $50 or $100 of your taxes could go to a "democracy voucher" that could be used on the campaigns that are funded by such vouchers and small individual donations.
Without change, the American government and economy will collapse, warned Lessig who said every year $96 billion is spent on corporate welfare that has no free market justification. The voucher system would save money because it would free politicians to act in the public interest.
"We have to recognize Uncle Sam is a drunk," said Lessig. "We need an intervention to sit him down and say you have to solve this problem."
A reporter spoke with some walkers as they were leaving the Eastern Slope Inn and heading out of town.
Joe Palin, of Somerville, Mass., said he's done most of the walk and it has been fun.
"I've never been to New Hampshire before," said Palin. "You have a beautiful state, by the way. It's been kind of treacherous, cold and rainy but there are lots of amazing people here."
Palin was attracted to the cause because he believes a lot of issues that are important to him will not be addressed until campaign finance reform is made. For instance, Palin is concerned about the Trans Pacific Partnership being pushed through without public input. The TPP is a proposed trade deal that may have implications for copyright law.
Susan Harritt, of Vermont, said she's participating in the event because she cares about having a "clean electoral system" and to make sure elected officials aren't unfairly influenced by those who can buy access.
Gaby Hoffmann came all the way from New York City just to march with the Rebellion. Hoffman learned of the Rebellion because her boyfriend was asked to shoot some footage of the event. He wanted to make a film and Hoffmann said she wanted to join.
"I'm here so that our representatives can start representing us and not big corporations," said Hoffmann.