Shaking electoral politics loose of big money is a daunting task. But activists in New Hampshire are taking it, literally, one step at a time.
On a Saturday morning in late August, several dozen people walked a six-mile stretch of road between the southern New Hampshire towns of Dublin and Hancock to galvanize support for public financing of U.S. elections.
It was the third walk for reform organized by the Concord-based Coalition for Open Democracy as part of a campaign called the New Hampshire Rebellion. The Coalition believes that the role of special interest money in U.S. elections is the root cause of our political corruption and dysfunction, and intends to force campaign-finance reform onto center stage in our national political debates by making it an inescapable issue in the 2016 New Hampshire presidential primaries. The state’s primaries, slated for February 2016, are the first in the nation and help establish both the frontrunners and the election-season agenda.
The walk honored the folk hero Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who set out in January 1999, at age 88, on what would be a 14-month walk from Pasadena, California, to Washington, D.C., for campaign-finance reform. The activists taking part in the August walk followed the same six-mile path that Granny D used in training for her 3,200-mile trek.
The closest she came to seeing her hopes realized was the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Act, which set limits on contributions to political parties from wealthy people and corporations. The Supreme Court gutted much of that legislation in its 2010 Citizens United decision, and Haddock died the same year.
Her spirit, however, remains a powerful presence in her home state of New Hampshire. She founded the Coalition in 2009, and its executive director, Daniel Weeks, was inspired to become a political activist by a talk that Granny D gave when he was in high school.
Weeks says that the momentum created by the walks will be channeled into other efforts during the primary season — placing op-ed pieces in local newspapers, for example. The goal is to create a blizzard of media coverage and voter pressure that the candidates cannot ignore.
Because New Hampshire is a small state, the idea of forcing politicians to take a stance on campaign-finance reform is plausible, since activists participating in the New Hampshire Rebellion will be present at most (or all) of the candidates’ campaign appearances, and a majority of the state’s voters can be reached through a few media outlets.
Still, the obstacles to pushing through legislation are daunting. Granny D’s story may be inspiring, but it is also a tale of how the entrenched system can overwhelm even modest, bipartisan reform efforts like McCain-Feingold. For Matt Derrickson, a senior political science major at Keene State College who took part in the August walk, the hardest step is the first one.
“Apathy is really easy to feel, and it’s hard to overcome,” he said. “Our job is to convince people that this is still possible.”
For the next walk, scheduled for January 2015, groups will gather in each corner of the state and walk four different paths that converge on its center.
In addition to helping inspire these walks, Granny D modeled the kind of faith and persistence that the New Hampshire Rebellion will likely need to succeed. In 2010, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, she addressed the justices in a statement, writing, “You force us to defend our democracy — a democracy of people and not corporations — by going in breathtaking new directions. And so we shall.” She was just shy of her 100th birthday at the time, and though she didn’t live long enough to lead the movement in “breathtaking new directions,” her sense of purpose lives on in the work of activists across New Hampshire. They are hopeful — but also aware that the road to genuine reform will be difficult and unsure.
“I don’t know if this is the magic bullet,” Derrickson said. “I don’t know, if we’re successful here, if that means we’ll be successful everywhere. But I think success anywhere is inspiration enough to at least try [in] other places. New Hampshire is small enough that the message can take hold and travel. So it has a lot of force here. It’s probably not the answer, but it’s a good place to start.”