You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Lawrence Lessig's Public Q&A on How His $12 Million Super PAC Will Fix Campaign Finance

BY Rebecca Chao | Friday, July 11 2014

Lawrence Lessig talks to Change.org's Ben Wikler about his Super PAC to end all Super PACs (Screenshot from MayDay.Us)

When Stephen Colbert satirically announced his intention to create his own Super PAC back in 2011, Harvard Professor Lawrence Lessig said that later, he had had a private conversation with the comedian to convince him to create a Super PAC to end all Super PACs.

Colbert's response was, “I’m a character. I’ve got to keep in character. The question is 'Can I make it funny?'” In effect, no. There was no fictional ham-version of Karl Rove to kill off or luxury jet expenses to pretend to waste. “For want of a joke the kingdom was lost,” Lessig said.

But when Lessig set out to create his own MayDay Super PAC to end all Super PACs, the support came, as Lessig explained to online audiences last night in a Q&A session moderated by Change.org's Ben Wikler.

Indeed, it came really fast. Though after raising the first $1 million in just 13 days, getting the next $5 million in small donations was no small feat. In the last two days of that second phase of the campaign, which ended on July 4, the MayDay team raised $2.5 million out of the $5 million they needed. Once the second tranche of matching funds from big donors come in, they will have a total of $12 million in donations and matched funds to work with. MayDay also has received video endorsements from celebrities like Dark Night star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seinfeld's Jason Alexander and Apple co-creator Steve Wozniak.

The $12 million raised will go towards selecting pro-campaign finance reform candidates to win five key races in 2014, yet to be determined, and to prove to Congress and country that citizens are truly interested in changing how elections are funded. The second phase involves raising enough money to elect a new Congress in 2016 that will then pass campaign finance reform legislation in 2017.

The problem of our current campaign financing system is outlined in Lessig’s MayDay campaign video: Over 90 percent of the people in the country agree that the our government is broken and campaign finance has allowed Congress to answer not to the people but to the elite few that finance them. In fact, our politicians waste roughly 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the one percent.

“There is nothing more dangerous than a government of the many controlled by the few,” Lessig warns in the video.

Now that MayDay has $12 million, the most important questions that came up last night were about how MayDay will spend the money and how the Super PAC will manage to reform campaign finance. Wikler fielded the questions from audience members and we've highlighted the main points below.

The MayDay campaign money: where it came from and how it will be used

The money came from Kickstarter-like funding as well as large contributions. So far, around 50,000 people have contributed small amounts to the first $1 million phase with four individuals donating larger amounts of several thousand dollars.

Among those who matched the initial $1 million are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman; Fred and Joanne Wilson and Brad Burnham, all from Union Square Ventures, Chris Anderson of TED and Vin Ryan of Iron Mountain.

Wikler read out one question that had been upvoted by audience members on why MayDay hadn't revealed all of the names of those who have contributed to the campaign.

“Anyone who donates $200 or more will be identified,” said Lessig. “We’re not taking money from any secret organization.”

As for those matching the second round of $5 million? “As soon as it’s completed those people will be announced,” Lessig said last night. He explains the wait as part of the psychology of fundraising. No one wants to be seen as “slow to the party,” he said. Naming the first matcher would slow down those who’d be willing to step up next.

In 2016, the budget will be significantly larger because MayDay will be trying to win a Congress committed to campaign finance reform, which may mean 20-40 seats and not just the five they are aiming for this year.

Selecting the right candidates

Another concern of audience members was how MayDay would select viable candidates to run in the five races.

Lessig explained that the first filter is the candidate’s platform. “It’s not enough to be committed to idea of transparency or voting for a constitutional amendment for campaign finance reform,” he said. The candidates selected will need to take a position on hard issues, like the five outlined at reform.to, which provide concrete plans to create a small donor system for campaign financing: matching citizen contributions and providing voters with vouchers.

Lessig notes that the five reforms were created by a mix of Republicans and Democrats and stresses that bipartisanship is absolute key to the success of MayDay.

The second filter is much more complicated. It would be to select a candidate that could actually win in a race that is both “feasible and surprising,” said Lessig. What this means is that the candidate needs to first win and second, clearly win based on the issue of campaign finance reform.

Part of this process is selecting districts where the issue of campaign finance reform excites people. “We have to produce a sort of army and an effect that hasn’t been seen before in politics," Lessig said. "The Internet has the potential to be that effect. But we need to inspire people to do this and that’s the job of 2014." In what could have been a play at flattering another tech mogul who could back his cause, Lessig pointed to Sean Parker’s yet to be revealed civic empowerment tool, Brigade, as just one example of how the Internet could be used to spur a diverse set of people to participate in politics.

Keeping elected politicians accountable

Lessig explained that candidates will be held accountable by committing to co-sponsoring a reform on campaign finance. The reason, said Lessig, is “if you get a majority of members [of Congress] who sponsor a piece of legislation, you have a tool to leverage that legislation on the floor." Neither Lessig nor Wikler asked, however, what would happen if the members ended up co-sponsoring different reforms and split Congressional support between the five different ones listed at reform.to.

If MayDay succeeds in winning a Congress committed to campaign reform, however, it would be “a gift to the next president whether Republican or Democrat…Imagine walking into a Congress finally free to worry about what their voters care about and not focused obsessively on what their funders care about. This is a way to set up the next administration to succeed in a very powerful way whether Republican or Democrat because we’ve liberated a Congress that is free to lead rather than free to follow the money.”

Can campaign finance reform fix lobbying?

One of the issues raised in the Q&A was how amending campaign finance would fix other issues of money and politics.

“[MayDay] is not the end of reform,” Lessig answered. “This is the first step. My own view is that if we change the way elections are funded, that will change the lobbyist system.” In fact, argued Lessig, once lobbyists are no longer needed as a go-between for the powerful corporations and the politicians in need of money, their power will diminish. “They won’t disappear,” he said, “Even in utopia you will need lobbyists. But they will be less powerful.”

Making MayDay nonpartisan

While nonpartisanship is crucial to a successful MayDay movement, Lessig admitted that “It’s very hard because the reality is there are not a lot of Republicans out there who step on the right side of the issue or make this an issue they care about.” He pointed to a few examples, such as North Carolina's Walter Jones in the House and NH candidate Jim Rubins in the Senate. “We can’t do this if it is a partisan reform because it would completely discredit it.”

The strategy in finding key conservative candidates is to speak the conservative language. Lessig noted that when David Brat beat Rep. Eric Cantor last month in a GOP primary in Virginia’s 7th congressional district, he denounced Cantor as a “crony capitalist,” which is essentially the product of a corrupt campaign finance system. The CATO institute, for example, reported that Congress spent $100 billion last year alone for corporate welfare even as it cut unemployment benefits for those at the bottom. “The people receiving the corporate welfare are the ones providing the campaign welfare, the funding the campaigns need," said Lessig.

From a professor’s project to a movement of the people

One of the audience members challenged Lessig by asking how he would move the movement's base supporters from "straight white male" to more racially and gender diverse groups. One of the keys to advancing a MayDay movement, rather than keeping it rooted as a project of one prominent academic, is to diversify and to win those who actually don't currently care about the issue.

As the movement gains traction and as it evolves, natural leaders will emerge, said Lessig, pointing to a few of the diverse leaders currently pushing for campaign finance reform: Zephyr Teachout who is campaigning to become the democratic candidate to challenge New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Heather McGhee of the think tank Demos and George Washington law professor Spencer Overton.

Lessig also argued that the negative consequences of campaign finance itself “disproportionately affect people who don’t look like me.” The issues of immigration, healthcare and climate change ultimately affect those at the bottom and that's why campaign finance can become a unifying, nonpartisan issue.

Lessig made it clear: "This will go nowhere as a professor’s movement. It has to be a people’s movement." All he wants to do is "kick it off."