Putting money into good elections is as important to a community as putting money into paving roads, a gathering of campaign finance reform supporters was told March 20 at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church.
The one-day conference, "Making the Connection," attracted about 100 people interested in instituting campaign finance reform on a local level.
On the one hand, there is no perfect solution to the problem of large campaign contributions, "soft money" and political action committees, said Lawrence Hansen of the Joyce Foundation, the conference's keynote speaker. But reformers cannot allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the task of changing the system, he said.
"We have to make election reform a top priority," Hansen said. "But we also have to accept the fact that elections in our current media-based society cost money. We can't go back to the kind of intimate, door-to-door politics that many of us would prefer."
So aim high, he said, but don't be afraid to build reform on an incremental basis.
"The idea that anything short of comprehensive reform isn't worth the effort is absurd," Hansen said. "Take reform any way you can."
The Chicago-based Joyce Foundation makes grants to non-profit organizations interested in improving the quality of life in the Midwest. Hansen said the foundation has granted funds to 117 campaign finance reform projects in the last few years.
Attendees came from as far away as Louisville and Cleveland to share stories of their successes and failures in changing the growing influence of money on elections.
Before joining the Joyce Foundation, Hansen was a research professor at George Washington University, where he directed the Democracy Agenda Project, a series of forums in 19 Midwestern cities on political reform.
With his experience, Hansen said, he knows what the public is willing to back and not back in terms of reform. And there has never been a better time than now to gain public support, he said.
"President Clinton is building a legacy, and it's for raising campaign money," Hansen told the audience, noting that the president is scheduled to attend another fund-raising event in Cincinnati. "It's pathetic."
But don't oversell the public on the benefits of campaign finance reform, he said.
"The problems in our political system reinvent themselves every five to 10 years," Hansen said. "Five years ago, 'soft money' and 'issue ads' were blips on the screen, and now they threaten the whole system. So reform isn't a one-time thing. It needs to be reworked constantly. ... You have to be straight with the public — there's no gain without pain. And there's no perfect solution."
In addition to Hansen's lunch remarks, the conference featured panels with Charles Juntikka, who led efforts for public financing of citywide campaigns in New York City, and Ric Bainter, who has consulted with groups in California, Arizona and Colorado on local campaign finance reform. Sponsoring organizations included the League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati Area, Ohio Citizen Action and Citizens for Civic Renewal. ©