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PAST IS PROLOGUE: Comments on the 40th Anniversary of Common Cause

Posted by Scott Harshbarger  October 13, 2010 03:24 PM

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One of the great historic citizens lobbying, advocacy and government watchdog groups, Common Cause, celebrated its 40th anniversary in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, October 6, 2010. Founded by John Gardner in 1970 because, in his view, "the only group in Washington that was not organized was the people", Common Cause was a pioneer and model for a non-partisan, non-profit, 501(C)(4) organization mobilizing the people's voice and the public interest in the Halls of Congress, the Executive branch and State Houses around the country. The Gala event featured major tributes to, and speeches by Arianna Huffington, Robert Reich (the new Common Cause Board Chair), the actor-activist Sam Waterston, and Bill Moyers, among others.

The theme was "Past is Prologue" and included a written commentary by each of the past Common Cause national Board Chairs and Presidents.

It is appropriate that we reflect on Common Cause in this campaign season, where already we are seeing an unprecedented flood of unlimited amounts of corporate, union, and individual money being contributed to, and being spent, in campaigns. This flood is a direct result of the Supreme Court Republican appointee majority opinion in CITIZENS UNITED, which reversed nearly a century of law and precedent, as well as legislative actions, designed to at least try to limit electioneering contributions by "outside", third party groups. Common Cause has consistently sought to stem the influence of money and special interests on the political process, and is often best-known for its leadership –and often unfortunate (in my view) single-minded focus – on campaign finance reform efforts at the state and federal effort.

For information about Common Cause, the conference and Gala event, the excellent Common Cause MA office, and the Moyers and other speeches see http://www.commoncause.org/site/pp.asp?c=dkLNK1MQIwG&b=5816015.

Therefore, in this context, I offer you my commentary, as a former President/CEO of Common Cause (1999-2002). In 1999, I met John Gardner for the first time. Getting to know him, his work, his writings, and his wisdom, as well as having his support for my reform and "renewal" leadership efforts, remains one of my greatest memories.

In one of my earliest conversations with him, Gardner told me that when he started Common Cause, "citizens were angry and engaged. Today, your challenge is far greater because people are cynical, disengaged and do not believe government matters or that they can make a difference, and, worse, most people do not understand or care about their obligations as citizens in a democracy. "And we tried – building coalitions to support the enactment of the McCain-Feingold Bi-partisan Campaign Finance Reform Law; re-structuring the National Board and staff and creating the C3 Education Fund; launching the Election Reform project, the Democracy Engagement initiative, and the Government Accountability Project – all efforts at renewing Common Cause as a voice of the people and the public interest.

Then, The Big Event – the election of Barack Obama. While he inherited diplomatic, domestic, economic, and spiritual disasters, we hoped that, out of this crisis (like the late 60’s and early 70’s) would come a Great Re-Awakening – a new era of innovation, the revival of common causes, spiritual and value renewals, and a public interest service and law movement – reminding us that government matters, and that citizens have obligations to each other, our community and our democracy.

But, sadly, we have failed! How can we energize the average citizen to engage with us when it is so clear that money and power make all the difference in every area of public policy? While we believe people can trump money, the great advocacy groups and progressive voices are silent or on the sidelines, and most people agree with Moyers that today your civic worth is measured by your net worth; that we exist in reality as "Two Americas"; and the forces of fear, anxiety, and anger rail against government as the enemy of the people.

So, for me, 10 years later, it is up to each of us – legal, business, civic, educational, religious, media and elected leaders – to "renew" the lost art and habits of governing and citizenship, of public service and acting in the public interest. We must re-engage in our democracy at every level beginning with civic and political engagement, and implement reforms that enable people to reclaim their democracy. Then hold ourselves and our leaders accountable for the quality of our lives and for restoring our faith in the core Constitutional Democracy values of inclusion, pluralism, fairness, equal opportunity, justice and equity!

10 years ago we still believed in those values. Today, we do not.

We are the cavalry, my friends.

This is a Community Voices blog. This blog is not written or edited by the staff of Boston.com or The Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for its contents.
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About the author

Scott Harshbarger's distinguished public career includes serving two terms as Massachusetts Attorney General (and President of the National Association of Attorneys General)  and as the Democratic candidate for Governor of More »

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