- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 5, 2000

Democracy flourished this summer in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Not at the Republican and Democratic conventions those made-for-television infomercials and exercises in corporate sponsorship but at the Shadow Conventions held contemporaneously in these cities.
With the issue of money and politics running as a general theme, the Shadow Conventions saw columnist Arianna Huffington join with Common Cause, Public Campaign, the interfaith group Call to Renewal, the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, United for a Fair Economy, and the Lindesmith Center, to put the spotlight on the critical issues of campaign-finance reform, the failed war on drugs and the growing gap between rich and poor.
While Shadow Convention participants did not agree on all the solutions to these pressing problems, they did agree on one thing: that our broken campaign-finance system blocks thoughtful consideration of these issues. Big money so dictates what our elected officials care about that Congress and the White House are paying scant attention to the reality of poverty among plenty in this country or to the consequences of our drug policies. These issues are ignored because they aren't the concerns of the big money system.
Once exercises in grassroots democracy, the party conventions now are closed to the public, with the police barring entry. The Shadow Conventions were open to all and accessible via the the Internet.
The party convention halls were temples to corporations that paid handsomely to equip them, to provide gifts to delegates and to fete powerful members of Congress at lavish parties. They may well be, according to Sen. Russell Feingold, "the worst display of fund-raising and corruption in the political history of our nation." The Shadow Conventions featured box lunches and donuts and speakers whose messages weren't designed to draw the biggest TV audience or influence the polls, and who challenged citizens to listen and debate.
Many members of Congress who participated Sens. Russell Feingold, John McCain and Paul Wellstone and Reps. Tom Campbell, Steve Horn, Mark Sanford, John Tierney and Marty Meehan risked censure from their own parties for taking part in an event that challenged the status quo. Still they came because, as Mr. Sanford put it, these were conventions "built around the power of ideas rather than the power of influence."
At each convention, hundreds of citizens black, white, Hispanic, old, young participated in a challenging six-hour program on money and politics. And hundreds of thousands more participated by visiting the Shadow Convention web site, which has logged more than two million hits since July.
Why did they come? Perhaps singer David Crosby put it best. "We feel disenfranchised … We feel that our elections are for sale, and we know that wasn't how it was designed to work."
People are increasingly connecting the dots between our big money politics and its impact on their own lives.
Griffin Dix's son was 15 years old when he died, the victim of a gun accident, hit by a bullet hidden in the chamber. "Who's writing our gun policy?" Mr. Dix asked. "It's the gun lobby. The gun lobby exempted this gun [that killed his son] from all consumer regulations."
Lynda Uvari always believed that government would protect her from harm, until she and her family developed serious and frightening ailments after they were unknowingly exposed to methyl bromide, a powerful pesticide. That experience transformed her into an activist who finds herself struggling against a chemical industry that gives millions of dollars in political contributions.
Rick Reinert was a small businessman caught in the crossfire when our government, defending the business interests of large campaign donor Carl Lindner, applied punitive tariffs to the German bath products he imported. Mr. Reinert was forced out of business, caught in this Kafkaesque fight about forcing the European Union to lift import restrictions on Mr. Lindner's Chiquita Bananas. "I'd been a veteran, taken civics in school," Mr. Reinert said, but now he is disillusioned. "Our political system lacks honor," he said.
"Everything and everyone you love is at stake," Granny D (Doris Haddock), reminded her audience. At age 89, Granny D walked 3,200 miles across America for campaign reform.
Businesses are also enlisting in the drive for reform. Charles Kolb, president of the Committee for Economic Development, said that many business leaders believe that "money and fund-raising have become too important and demanding in our political life" and that some executives view the current campaign-finance system as a legalized shakedown. "Together we will take back our democracy," Mr. Kolb added.
Like the conventions of the abolitionists struggling against slavery, or the gatherings of the suffragettes fighting for women's rights, or the meetings of the cadre of workers who formed Solidarity and helped bring down the communist empire, the Shadow Conventions were another step on the road to reform.
No one can doubt the power of an issue which has linked fortune 500 executives, AIDS activists, consumer advocates, environmentalists, Latinos and African-Americans in a drive to reduce the influence of big money on our politics.
The Shadow Conventions were another sign that the voices of average Americans are growing stronger and demanding more more action, more change and more responsiveness by the people who are supposed to be accountable to them. Until reform is a reality, those voices will continue to grow. And we will keep marching on.

Scott Harshbarger is president of Common Cause.

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