Schroeder says ‘really big bucks’ at root of nation’s political woes

Common Cause celebrates 40th anniversary

By Ernest Luning

The values espoused by Colorado Common Cause are in greater peril than ever, warned a former congresswoman whose public career spans nearly the same four decades as the good-government organization.

Pat Schroeder and former Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon at the anniversary event.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Local and national Common Cause officials and honorees smile at the 40th anniversary celebration for Colorado Common Cause at the Denver Art Museum on Sept. 21. From left, Denver attorney Bob Hill, recipient of the Craig Barnes Democracy Award; Martha Tierny, chair of the Common Cause National Governing Board; former U.S. Rep. Pat Schroeder, who also received the Barnes award; Jenny Rose Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause; Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause; and Elena Nun?ez, program director for Colorado Common Cause.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Jenny Rose Flanagan, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, talks to the crowd assembled to celebrate the organization’s 40th birthday Sept. 21 at the Denver Art Museum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
State House Speaker Terrance Carroll, a Denver Democrat, urges support for Colorado Common Cause at the Sept. 21 luncheon.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Pat Schroeder, a Denver Democrat elected in 1972 to the first of her dozen terms in Congress, urged supporters of Common Cause to dig in and keep fighting in her keynote speech delivered at a lunch-time fundraiser celebrating the group’s 40th anniversary Sept. 21 at the Denver Art Museum.

“We really thought we’d solved so much of this only to find, I think, it’s in worse shape than it’s ever been,” said Schroeder, who serves on Common Cause’s National Governing Board and received the group’s Craig Barnes Democracy Award at the luncheon. Noting that she’s been traveling the country politicking for the election season, she added, “It’s poison out there. I’m having almost as much fun as when I get to empty the vacuum bag.”

The problem, she said, is the vast amount of money in politics these days. Legislators spend the bulk of their time raising campaign cash, leaving scant time to solve real problems, Schroeder contended, and in the end it’s still not enough because even wealthier candidates and interests end up drowning out mere mortals.

Schroeder, who retired from Congress in 1997 and lives with her husband, Jim, in Florida, was among several notables who addressed the crowd of 150, including national Common Cause president Bob Edgar, the organization’s National Governing Board chairwoman Martha Tierney, state board chairman David Sallins and Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll, a past board member.

Supporters celebrated a rich history of legislative and successful ballot initiatives spearheaded by the reform group, which claims “open, honest and accountable government” as its chief aim. Included in the four-decade tally of the state organizations achievements are the nation’s first Sunshine Laws establishing a public right to view government records and attend official meetings; the GAVEL Amendment, which reformed how the state legislature could operate; and a state ethics measure establishing strict rules on gifts to public officials and a commission empowered with sorting things out.

“We really are leaders in the country in terms of the openness of our legislative process,” reflected state executive director Jenny Rose Flanagan. “Over the years, Common Cause has really made an impact in the state in terms of working toward a democracy that is more of a level playing field.”

It’s not just marquee legislation, she pointed out. The group monitors legislation with an eye toward minimizing barriers to citizen participation in and access to government, as well as running the website and toll-free number providing “one-stop shop for voting information in the state,” Flanagan said.

Common Cause will also be dealing with the changed political landscape in the wake of this year’s Supreme Court Citizens United decision. The controversial ruling granted virtually unfettered First Amendment speech rights to corporations, a development critics say could usher unprecedented amounts of campaign cash into the system.

“There will be more work to do around money in politics,” Flanagan said, echoing Schroeder’s remarks. “That is something we’re always looking at.”

Schroeder tied the current rancorous political environment to the ever-increasing influence of corporate and special-interest cash.

“I don’t hear any substance,” she said. “I just hear, ‘We’re mad, we’re not going to take it any more, we’re taking our country back, we’re taking our Constitution back, we’re doing this and that.’ And then, when you peel it away, what’s behind it? Really big bucks. Really big bucks.”

Recalling her first run for Congress in 1972, Schroeder said her average campaign contribution was $7.50, fueled by wine and cheese parties all across Denver. “We had to switch to white wine,” she cracked, “because our fans’ teeth were turning purple.”

And even by her final run for Congress — albeit from the safety of a heavily Democratic seat and the added comfort of more than two decades of incumbency — the average donation to her campaign had still only swelled to $35.

That’s chicken feed compared with the piles of cash candidates now must raise, she said, pegging the price of entry at a minimum $2 million. But once lawmakers get elected, then the real fundraising duties start, she said.

“The Republicans started it and now the Democrats copied it,” she said with a jibe at both parties and a nod to Common Cause’s nonpartisan status.

“If you want to keep your position in the party, as a chairman or on a special committee, or whatever, they assign a price for that,” Schroeder said. “And you must raise a certain amount of money and give it to the party fund — not to your race, but to the party fund. You’re buying your position.”

What’s a reform group to do in the face of those kinds of demands for that kind of cash?

“The idea that we think money is speech and has no strings attached is just the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen,” Schroeder said, referring to the Citizens United ruling. “Now here’s the problem in Common Cause — all the things we’re working on go right to the very basis of why we can’t get things done that every single one of us think make common sense. And it’s so hard to get people into what the process is.”

Then she pointed at the Common Cause supporters, sweeping her gaze across the room.

“I found in my life there’s two kinds of people: the kind of people who wring their hands about how terrible it is, and the kind of people who roll up their shirtsleeves and say let’s go get it, let’s fix it,” she said. “That’s what I love about Colorado. We’re shirtsleeve-rollers. I don’t know anybody who can wring and roll at the same time.”

Along with Schroeder, Denver lawyer Bob Hill, a co-founder of the Hill & Robbins law firm, was also honored with the Craig Barnes Democracy Award. The award is named after the Colorado native who had a hand in seminal Colorado Common Cause-sponsored legislation, including the state’s pioneering Sunshine and Sunset laws.