Power from the People

Look at the American political landscape today and you might begin to get the sinking feeling that the red state/blue state dichotomy is, on the one hand, just a bit of political show and, on the other, a pitiable piece of naiveté. We have to admit that if we want to paint the nation with an election-time metaphor, its color wouldn't be blue, red or even my recently identified purple. It's green--and not the green of environmental concerns, but the green of cold, hard cash.*

On Jan. 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court virtually endorsed this green-tinted view of American politics in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that corporations (and nonprofits and unions) can donate any amount of money to a political campaign--and at any time, including the previously banned "electioneering" period of 30 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election.

The court essentially opened the floodgates to corporate domination of campaign finance, staking the decision, which reverses six decades of both federal election law and First Amendment jurisprudence, on the notion that corporations are people, too.

It seems like a dour, depressing time for American politics. What might have been the lessons learned from the Obama campaign--that energy, action and community are the keys to winning an American election--will be obliterated by the sheer volume of corporate cash that is already flowing into the veins of the American body politic. It is not only sad, but it's also a crisis--and, as such (to paraphrase one high-profile Washingtonian), it's an opportunity not to be missed.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. It's the corporate-cash-financed election machine versus the value-driven community politician. It's the Main Street-Wall Street title fight that is playing out in almost every aspect of American public life. It's Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith squaring off against the machinery of Boss Taylor in Frank Capra's evidently timeless film.

But the narrative is playing out most clearly and poignantly in current real-life campaigns. My own experience has proved this, working with an underdog Connecticut gubernatorial candidate named Dan Malloy. Malloy was the longtime mayor of Stamford, Conn., a position he began in 1995 and held for 14 years, during which time he increased public school funding by more than $100 million (100 percent), made Stamford the ninth-safest city in the U.S. and grew the job market, in addition to other achievements.

Malloy is now facing a tough race for governor, in no small part because his main opponent, Ned Lamont, is a well-heeled political heavyweight. Having barely lost a 2006 challenge for Joe Lieberman's U.S. Senate seat, Lamont is looking to the governor's mansion, and the former cable company executive is likely to draw on his personal fortune (once estimated at about $200 million) and his family's corporate connections (he is descended from one of the early partners of J.P. Morgan) to leverage a win.

Malloy, like many American politicians, simply can't afford to fight money with money. But I've learned that, at least in his mind, money is not the hot commodity. Community is. It's this core belief that motivated Malloy to strike out in a completely different direction when it came time to fund his campaign efforts.

Shrugging at the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, Malloy decided to try to qualify for Connecticut's Citizens' Election Program (CEP), a relatively new plan that provides state funding for a campaign--on the conditions that the candidate can raise enough money on his or her own first and, after that, uses only public money for the campaign. The kicker is that the candidate has to raise the threshold money (in this case, $250,000) in donations of $100 or less.

As of two weeks ago, Malloy was the first Connecticut gubernatorial candidate to qualify for CEP. With several thousand checks for no more than $100 now in hand, he will receive up to $8.5 million in funding.

From a financial standpoint, the numbers don't add up. Ned Lamont could easily double that amount, especially armed with the majority opinion of Citizens United, as well as a line to his own bank account. But raising that kind of money, while eminently possible, takes time and effort. Malloy believes time and effort are better spent in different ways: What he wants is five minutes of voters' time, an opportunity to sit with them over coffee.

I think the people are ready. In some ways, Malloy's qualifying for CEP funds is a radical departure from politics as usual. But as we saw in Tuesday's primary elections, the people want change. Malloy is a believer in this rise of populism: He wants to make American politics local again, to be able to represent his voters before they vote for him. To do this, he's creating a community, while his opponents are mostly just raising funds.

I draw from my own experience again, showing how community building can work. During my two decades in marketing and PR, I've lived around the world and still travel regularly. Although I technically reside in Connecticut, some weeks I spend so much time in the office that Manhattan feels more like home. So it's not a big surprise that I've often felt more like a citizen of the world than a resident of Connecticut.

But it's remarkable how an authentic political experience can ground a person in a place. Seeing that the problems of the local school system are being addressed can inspire someone to once again take an interest in improving that system. Taking care of potholes, voting on local tax initiatives, cleaning up parks and clearing air pollution out of city skies all seem worth tackling because someone is spearheading the effort, and in a community-inclusive way. The lost citizens of America, like me, can be given the chance to reclaim their membership in local communities.

* The opinions in this post are mine alone and not those of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR.