Pre-debate forums address an array of issues

While the national media spotlight was firmly focused on Denver, platoons of the professionally aggrieved from across the country flew into the Mile High City this week to try and capture a little attention for their causes. With nearly five thousand journalists looking for something to report prior to the main event, there was ample opportunity to attract them to forums providing arguments for why the Presidential candidates should be addressing their specific concerns. No one was foolish enough to believe that debate moderator Jim Lehrer or the campaigns themselves would actually be listening, but there was a slim chance they could generate a mention in Dubuque.

Tuesday morning a coalition of good government organizations assembled in the 32nd floor conference room of Holland & Hart’s law offices. Hosted by University of Colorado Regent Michael Carrigan and sponsored by the American Sustainable Business Council, Common Cause and Americans for Campaign Reform, the subject du jour was the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United and the subsequent expanding flood of money into political campaigns. The view of the Front Range was spectacular as the first skiff of snow could be seen along the Continental Divide. Even though it was 8:00 a.m., 40 or 50 wretches had crawled from their beds for a free breakfast.

The panel that was gathered to discuss the issue included Republican Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler and Colorado Republican Party attorney John Zakhem. They emerged as the de facto defenders of the decision that equated money with political speech, while they were challenged by former Colorado state Senator Ken Gordon, who lost the 2010 race for Secretary of State to Gessler, former six term Congressman Bob Edgar, the national chair of Common Cause, and Larry Noble, formerly attorney to the Federal Election Commission. Gessler spoke first and suggested that the Citizens United decision was contributing to a more robust political debate this year, and observed that previous contribution restrictions were like telling Paul Revere he had the right to alert his neighbors but that he couldn’t own the horse he needed for his midnight ride — I didn’t understand the comparison myself.

Bob Edgar reached back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Tillman Act of 1907 that originally outlawed corporate contributions. Apparently Roosevelt’s progressive agenda had the industrial trusts lining up to oust him, so he convinced his allies in Congress to protect themselves. He went on to quote Bill Moyers’ recent claim that we face “…the most dangerous moment in American history,” as government of, by and for corporations threatens to replace Lincoln’s formula of government of, by and for the people. Zakhem pulled George Washington and the Federalists into the debate for their purchase of a beer for their voters — presumably the secret ballot wasn’t so sacrosanct then. And, in a microbrew Mecca like Colorado, Zakhem noted that this approach might work well here.

The last speaker was Ken Gordon, who emphasized the difference between money and speech, with money tilting the political playing field towards an obligation on the part of candidates to their donors. He went on to point out that money introduces a fundamental dishonesty in the dialogue between candidates and their constituents, distorting the role of government against the interests of average voters. As we all know, individuals who cut ten thousand dollar checks aren’t motivated by a burning desire for good government, which led to an interesting discussion of winners and losers in the American political arena. Gessler and Zakhem seemed to concede that those with money have a better chance of becoming winners, although Zakhem pointed out that unions can pool their members’ money and become winners as well. Gessler threw a well-aimed barb at Gordon for the $90,000 he contributed to his own race for Secretary of State, unsuccessfully as it turned out.

Whether disclosure provides an effective curb on campaign spending was the subject of further dispute, although everyone seemed to agree it was better than nothing. Neither side was capable of producing an effective counter argument to the major complaint from its opponent: (1) that no combination of campaign reform laws has ever curbed the exploding cost of elections, and, (2) that this money has frequently picked the winners. The Americans for Campaign Reform are proposing a national system of public financing that would match small contributions, beneath some reasonable floor, much as is done in Maine and Arizona, although self-financed candidates have skipped out from under these restrictions in both states. With 80 percent of voters objecting to the Citizens United decision, we are sure to hear more of this debate.

US Conference of Mayors

The United States Conference of Mayors flew in four of their all-stars for a panel with Denver’s own Michael Hancock to discuss the challenges that the Presidential candidates should be addressing. Several hundred attended in a crowd well salted with Denver city employees and appointees of the Mayor. Republicans Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City and Scott Smith of Mesa, Arizona were joined by former NBA player Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore. It was impossible not to recall one of the better lines from the 2008 campaign when Sarah Palin pointed out that serving as Mayor of Wasilla, Alaska was similar to being a community organization — only with real responsibilities. Even under the leavening influence of moderator Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post, this was an angry group — fed up with a ‘do nothing’ Congress and disgusted with an administration that isn’t ‘making things happen.’

American cities allegedly generate 90 percent of the nation’s GDP and 86 percent of our jobs. In exchange for this, these Mayors could obviously use a little more loving. When asked what question would you ask the Presidential candidates, a surprising list of concerns emerged. Rawlings-Blake demanded help with water infrastructure projects, a theme she would hit so often that Fineman jocularly forbid her from including it in her summation. Apparently rates keep going up every year as Baltimore replaces water mains that have been in place “…since Francis Scott Key watched the bombs bursting in air” over Fort McHenry. Cornett wanted to know, “When do we, as a nation, get serious about energy independence?” and added, that worrying about “…the welfare of all mankind isn’t a practical objective!” Kevin Johnson wanted to know, “How are we going to fix our public schools? What is your vision for improving K-12 education?” He would later, as a self-professed moderate Democrat, surprisingly demand that Congress get the national budget balanced sooner rather than later. Scott Smith plumped for building a better America with first-rate infrastructure.

Michael Hancock proposed putting the two candidates in an airplane and flying them over Denver. He would point out Denver residents picking up their morning paper and ask Romney and Obama what they believe is most important to that voter on the porch breathing clean, crisp Colorado air? He would ask them how they were planning to meet them “…where they are?” It sounds a little New Agey, but it worked. Fineman followed up by observing that Mayors have to practice politics from the ground up, not from 30,000 feet in the air. When asked what they wanted from Congress, there was a consensus: infrastructure investment and the jobs this would generate. While these Mayors are held accountable by their voters for picking up the trash, responding to 911 calls and balancing budgets, they clearly disdain Congressional majorities that are rarely held accountable by voters.

As Johnson emphasized, Mayors have to use common sense. Cornett added, “You don’t get your own way, you have to compromise with City Council, the business community, non-profits and the public, but, at the end of the day, you are expected to get something done.” He also complained about a redistricting process that has been dispatching increasingly extreme candidates to the Oklahoma Legislature. Heads nodded in agreement. During a closing discussion of the lame duck session of Congress that will have to deal with the looming, federal ‘fiscal cliff,’ Fineman offered that statesmanship just might break out. The Mayors didn’t seem optimistic about that.