Rash Report: Citizens unite to counter a big-buck era

  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 3:37 PM

Minnesota-based Jefferson Action advocates for a better political process.

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Three recent media moments typify today's Citizens United political era:

Time's cover this week has a Photoshopped for-sale sign on the White House lawn (asking: $2.5 billion) with the headline "How to Buy the White House."

• By court order, starting this week network affiliates in the top-50 markets are required to post political ad spending. But smaller markets -- many in swing states being carpet-bombed by campaign ads -- are exempt until 2014.

• And in July, Senate Republicans, on a strict party-line vote, blocked the DISCLOSE Act, which among other provisions would have required politically active groups to reveal the identities of funders funneling more than $10,000 to candidates or causes.

Just these three manifestations of Washington's political-media industrial complex are enough to keep some voters home.

Actually, that's the point, said Jim Meffert, executive director of Minneapolis-based Jefferson Action, which bills itself as a "nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to returning democracy to the people."

"The campaign structure's and candidates' motivation is not to inform or engage -- it's in a voter suppression mode," said Meffert, who should know. He was the Third District's DFL congressional candidate in 2010 but lost to Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen. "You want to turn off your opponent's base, and turn on your base so you have control over who turns out and what they do," Meffert added.

Like Jefferson Action, Meffert's analysis isn't partisan: He blames Democrats, Republicans and Beltway consultants. "Both parties are off the cliff," he said. "Having seen the inside of one, and watched closely what the other one does, there's no difference."

Meffert, founder Ned Crosby and others at Jefferson Action are trying to keep voters from falling off the cliff, too. So they've launched an innovative project in the closely contested congressional race in Ohio's 16th District, where redistricting resulted in a race between incumbents Jim Renacci, a Republican, and Betty Sutton, a Democrat.

Late last week, a group of 22 voters with a variety of political perspectives took part in an intensive three-day forum. They identified the three key issues needing specific solutions: weak economic growth, unemployment, and the federal budget deficit and debt. Participants issued a detailed, data-driven "Statement to the Candidates," asking them to display not only an understanding, but "provide real solutions (legislation, policies) and show how they have been accountable to voters on these issues." Additionally, Renacci and Sutton were asked to stay in a "learning mode, listen with care, keep focused on the issue at hand, and disagree positively."

The candidates were queried on what they would have done differently in hindsight on the three issues, and were asked to swear off negative or misleading ads. Finally, they were asked how voters can stay involved and help address the issues. Additional forums will assess whether they effectively addressed the questions.

Sound like any campaigns you know? Didn't think so.

"You're seeing us try to create a construct, a set of expectations that puts a framework in place that allows candidates and campaigns to talk about what really matters to people in an organized manner," Meffert said.

It's the participants "being willing to listen to other perspectives, being willing to challenge" that's crucial, he said.

Those aren't common descriptions of another modern media malady that Jefferson Action takes into account. "Talk radio and TV reinforces our pre-established notions of what should be done. You start with the assumption that 'I have the right answer, and I am going to surround myself in a vacuum with people who agree with that.' ... It's extremely damaging, dangerous and toxic."

Jefferson Action's work may be more admirable than scalable. Meffert wishes he could afford 15 districts. But even 15 falls far short of November's 435 congressional contests.

So despite the earnest, honest approach, it's easy to be skeptical. And yet the reform has to start somewhere. And it has to be led by voters: Many enjoying the spoils of the political-media industrial complex have only sought to solidify the system in place.

"The volume, both in breadth and the actual shouting volume [of the ads] -- the frustration of the public is increasing exponentially," Meffert said, adding, "They know what Citizens United is doing.

"It's absolutely optimistic, and a bit Pollyanna, but there is an audience for it."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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