In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Josh Silver, Director of Represent.US, an organization building a movement to pass tough anti-corruption laws in cities and states across America. His local approach to political and social change is a fascinating model. Josh is a veteran election and media reform executive and served as the campaign manager for the successful 1998 Arizona Clean Elections ballot initiative campaign. He is also the co-founder and former CEO of Free Press, a leading media and technology reform advocacy organization. He also served as the Director of Development for the cultural arm of the Smithsonian Institution.
If you want to read past interviews in the Social Velocity interview series go here.
Nell: With Represent.Us you take a city-by-city or state-by-state approach to political reform, instead of a nationwide approach. Why do you think a local approach holds more promise?
Josh: It’s all about momentum. Every poll available has shown that Americans of all political affiliations — conservatives, progressives, and independents alike — support tough, new anti-corruption laws. But, as with so many other issues, these wildly popular reforms are going nowhere fast in today’s Washington.
If we want to break the gridlock at the national level, we need to be pragmatic about where we focus our efforts. Rather than throw ourselves at a brick wall in Congress, we’re taking this fight to the thousands of cities and 27 states where we can use the ballot initiative process to bypass compromised local legislatures and put tough, new anti-corruption laws directly to a public vote.
Focusing on city and state initiatives is both good policy and good politics. In policy terms, many state and local anti-corruption laws are even more out of date than federal law and in significant need of reform. We can and should do everything in our power to make the exchange of money and favors for political influence illegal at every level of government.
In political terms, using a local ballot initiative strategy will allow us to start racking up wins immediately, showing an understandably cynical public that change is possible and building momentum for national reform. While self-interested politicians might be reluctant to change the system that got them elected, the public will overwhelmingly vote for a local Anti-Corruption Act if given the opportunity.
Advocates of marriage equality and marijuana legalization have seen huge success with the same strategy. 20 years ago, both issues faced seemingly insurmountable odds in Washington. By picking smart targets at the state and local level, they’ve managed to redraw the political map and set their campaigns on the path to national victory.
We’re running the same playbook, and it’s already working. On November 4, 2014, Tallahassee, Florida passed the first municipal Anti-Corruption Act in the United States by a two to one margin. Now, campaigns for new Anti-Corruption Acts are already in the works for twelve cities and two states in 2015 and 2016.
Nell: As you mentioned, your approach is part of a larger state-by-state reform trend, with movements like the state-by-state legalization of gay marriage and of marijuana. Why does the state-by-state approach work now and will we ever go back to federal level reform?
Josh: The state-by-state approach works because it allows Americans to take matters into their own hands when politicians refuse to act. Instead of worrying about local politicians carving out loopholes for themselves and their parties, the People can craft their own comprehensive reform plan, gather the signatures necessary to place it on the ballot, and put their local Anti-Corruption Act directly to a public vote. Given the popularity of the reforms we’re talking about, these local Acts are very likely to pass, building the movement from the ground up and creating a domino effect which will spread from state to state and eventually Washington, DC.
Passing a statewide ballot initiative can fundamentally change a state’s political culture. It sends a clear message to every elected official in the state, including that state’s federal delegation. Every time we pass a statewide anti-corruption act, it makes it possible for federal candidates in that state to run for Congress and win without the backing of big money special interests. So, every state we win means more members of Congress who support comprehensive nationwide reform. Once we’ve attained a critical mass of support in the states, federal level reform is inevitable.
Nell: A big part of what you do involves creating coalitions of strange bedfellows, for example Tea Party loyalists and progressives. How do you circumvent our current environment of the dismissive or openly hostile discourse between opposing viewpoints and get people to find some common ground and work together?
Josh: Americans self-identify as roughly one-third Conservative, one-third Progressive and one-third Independent. Maintaining a fiercely cross-partisan campaign is critical to our long-term success — winning national reform is impossible with only one-third of the country behind you.
We’ve found that the people fighting at the grassroots are sick of the gridlock in Washington, and much more willing to work across partisan lines than their members of Congress. While our supporters might not agree on everything, they’re united behind the fundamental belief that government — no matter how large or how small — must put the needs of the People first. Public policy decisions should be made based on merit, not lobbyists and campaign contributions. Our supporters are willing to put their partisan differences aside and work together to make that happen.
The effort behind the Tallahassee Anti-Corruption Act is a perfect example of this principle in action. It was spearheaded by the chair of the Florida Tea Party Network, the former president of the Florida League of Women Voters, the chairman of Florida Common Cause, and a leader of Integrity Florida, an independent state ethics watchdog. This politically diverse coalition played an enormous role in the Tallahassee victory. As the editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat, the local paper of record, put it: “When you have representatives of the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Integrity Florida and the state Tea Party Network all aligned against you, it might be time to reassess your position.”
Nell: You just won your first victory by passing an anti-corruption code in the city of Tallahassee, FL. Let’s be idealistic for a second. What if you are able to log victories like Tallahassee’s in cities and states across the country. Is there a critical number of places before the movement becomes truly national? And then do you look at federal reforms? Or is the end goal every city and every state?
Josh: There is no “magic number” — Each state-level win makes national reform more likely. Every statewide victory means more Congressional delegations from states with an Anti-Corruption Act, and more public pressure on politicians to get on the right side of this issue or risk losing their seats.
While winning a federal Anti-Corruption Act is a major goal, bringing reform to every city and state is just as important. This movement is bigger than any one law — it’s about fundamentally changing the political culture of the United States. It’s about demonstrating that Americans will not tolerate laws putting self-interest before the public good, and ensuring a government committed to serving the People at every level.
It’s not a question of idealism. This movement is real, and has no plans of slowing down. We’re planning to bring local Anti-Corruption acts to 12 cities and 2 states in 2015 and 2016. We are already working with local law firms, political strategists and grassroots activists to make it happen.
If you’d like to be part of it, visit represent.us to learn more and join the campaign.