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If You Ever Wonder Whether We Really Need Public Financing of Elections in this Country

As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, you might think I spend most of my time kissing babies or shaking hands or having serious policy debates. But no. I spend most of my time dialing for dollars.
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As a candidate for the U.S. Senate here in Minnesota, I've become painfully aware of the role money plays in politics.

For instance, according to my staff, I'm not supposed to write anything without mentioning that our grassroots campaign needs the support of great progressives like YOU and asking you to click here and chip in a few bucks so I can take on the Republican attack machine.

See? That kind of thing totally distracts the reader from my point, which is this: If you ever wonder whether we really need public financing of elections in this country, try running for office. You might think I spend most of my time kissing babies or shaking hands or having serious policy debates in which my sparkling wit and superior knowledge of the issues combine to sweep audiences off their feet.

But no. I spend most of my time doing this.

That's me during "call time," which is basically what candidates for public office do all day. The guy on the right is Kris, my call time manager. It's his job to sit with me for hours at a time and make sure I'm "making the ask" on every call. For instance, he's currently pacing behind me reminding me to make another "ask" in here. Here it is, Kris: please click here and give me money. Okay?

While I'm sitting there with Kris, I often think about how badly we need public financing of elections in this country. We need it because I should be out talking to Minnesotans about the issues that matter to their families. We need it so that I can spend my days meeting with policy experts and reading up on legislation and working with progressives all over the state to build a movement that can take on Norm Coleman next fall.

And we need it because members of Congress are too beholden to special interests, and that costs taxpayers, big time. The Medicare Part D prescription drug bill, which might be the most corrupt piece of legislation in history, was a huge giveaway of taxpayer funds to the big pharmaceutical companies. The 2005 energy bill handed billions of dollars of our money to big oil companies, essentially just for the hell of it.

Did the Republican majority pass those bills out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not. They passed them because they rely on huge PAC checks from these big corporate interests to fund television commercials calling Democrats "big spenders."

Let me select a totally random example: Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman (R-PHARMA). In the first fundraising quarter this year, he raised around $1.5 million. About a third of that came from PACs -- tobacco, coal, insurance, etc. Over the course of his career, he's taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Oil and Big Pharma. And, of course, he voted in favor of that horrible drug bill and that horrible energy bill.

I'm doing things a little differently. In my first fundraising quarter (which was really only 45 days since I announced on February 14), I raised around $1.35 million. But instead of relying on PACs, I relied mostly on small contributions from over 10,000 donors (over 90 percent of whom gave less than $100), more than twice as many as Coleman. (I should point out that you can help, too, by clicking here. See, I'm learning!)

But even though thousands of people have already helped without my having to call them, I still spend a lot of time on the phone. Don't get me wrong -- I don't mind talking to people about my campaign and what I'd do in the Senate to push for universal health care, stem cell research, and an end to the war in Iraq. (Although sometimes I get kind of annoyed when I get too many voicemails in a row.)

What I don't like is that I never get to spend enough time really getting into the issues. Whenever I start actually talking about how I'd vote to revitalize our manufacturing sector by investing in renewable energy technology or how I'd help ensure that every American has access to affordable health care, Kris is there to remind me to "make the ask." Sometimes he's kind of insistent.

But the sad truth is, if you can't raise the money, you can't make your case. That's why I keep Kris around. But forcing candidates to spend their time and energy dialing for dollars instead of engaging with citizens cheats candidates and voters alike.

It cheats elected officials, too. With public financing, members of Congress could spend their time meeting with constituents, discussing policy problems with experts, and, you know, READING the legislation they're voting on. And we wouldn't have any more earmarks snuck in in the middle of the night, $231 million "Bridges to Nowhere," or stupid giveaways to big corporate interests. Also, I wouldn't have to keep asking you for money all the time. (Which reminds me: click here!)

That's why, when I'm in the Senate, I'll push for public financing of elections. But in the meantime, I have to go call a guy in Wayzata who's got some kind of hedge fund or something.

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