Lori Sturdevant: Common Cause is a worthy cause

  • Article by: LORI STURDEVANT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 16, 2012 - 9:58 PM

The national citizens' network is back in action, promoting reform in a cynical era.

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Mike Dean

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Watching Common Cause Minnesota in action in recent months has been enough to turn a cynic into a believer in institutional resurrection.

Common Cause, the national citizens' network founded in 1969 to advocate for honest, open and accountable government, stopped fogging mirrors in this state in about 2000. It seemed gone for good for the next eight years.

It's no goner now. Here's a partial list of the news it's been making:

• Common Cause Minnesota joined the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and Jewish Community Action in filing a May 30 lawsuit challenging as misleading the ballot wording of the proposed photo ID constitutional amendment.

• Common Cause Minnesota's effort to require disclosure of donors to the Minnesota Family Council, a leading advocate of the proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, was rejected June 5 by the state Campaign Finance Board.

• The same board is considering a complaint filed May 15 by Common Cause Minnesota against the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a business-backed group that promulgates conservative state legislation. The complaint: ALEC has not registered as a lobbyist or disclosed its spending in Minnesota.

That's just in the last month. Common Cause Minnesota also made a considerable splash on redistricting last year, arguing for more meaningful citizen involvement.

It howled during last July's shutdown when decisions were made by a handful of officials in a locked Capitol, out of the public's eye. (With that issue, Common Cause lived up to its nonpartisan billing -- something it has otherwise lost in GOP eyes, despite the Republican pedigree of its national founder, John Gardner.)

Common Cause was also a prime mover behind Minnesota's campaign finance disclosure law, passed in 2010 in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that tore down state bars to corporate and union funding of political speech.

That's the state law that made it possible in 2010 for gay rights activists to notice that Target and other state businesses were funding efforts to elect GOP gubernatorial candidate Tom Emmer, who was not friendly to the gay rights cause. The repercussions of that observation are still being felt in Target shareholder meetings.

All of that activity had me expecting to find an office whirring with activity when I paid executive director Mike Dean a visit.

Instead, I found the entire Common Cause Minnesota staff -- Dean -- in his corner of shared space in a nondescript office building on E. Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis.

But while the 33-year-old former corporate public relations adviser lacks paid assistants and accoutrements, he has considerable vision and zeal. Dean is convinced that Common Cause Minnesota is in the vanguard of something big -- a new, Internet-fueled citizens' backlash against excessive special-interest control of American government.

He grants that there's a mountain of cynicism about American politics -- a mountain built of special-interest money, he says.

But it can be scaled by "a new social movement" that his organization and others like it are creating, he says. Unhappiness with the high court's Citizens United decision will help make it so.

"Just like Roe v. Wade helped spark the right in the 1980s and 1990s, I think you'll see Citizens United spark a new movement around good government. It'll take government back from corporate special interests and bring it to the people. It will take time to do that, much more than the next four years. But we are starting those conversations all around the country."

That would be a laughable prediction from a guy in charge of a one-man office, were it not for the gains he's already made. In four years, Common Cause has rebuilt its Minnesota dues-paying membership base to 10,000 donors, he says.

And, it would seem a more far-fetched prediction were it not for what happened last week at the St. Paul and Minneapolis City Councils: Both approved resolutions calling for an "end to corporate personhood." Those calls were made at the urging of Move to Amend, a Common Cause ally in the effort to overturn the Citizens United court decision via constitutional amendment. Duluth's council took the same action six months ago.

The cynic in me says that passing such resolutions is cheap politics, not reform. It says that one little ruckus-raising nonprofit, or even a bunch of them, cannot restrain the newly empowered hand of big money in American life.

But the American story is rich with examples of people who refused to give in to cynicism. They took advantage of the tools for self-correction that were built into the U.S. Constitution to change the country for the better.

Those tools were damaged by the Citizens United decision. I like knowing that there's somebody on E. Franklin trying hard to fix them.

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Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. 

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