The 2016 presidential race is in full swing, and so is the fundraising for political campaigns. The candidates have collectively raised over $1 billion, which far surpasses what was fundraised in 2012. Despite these statistics, fundraising for campaigns has taken the back seat in the minds of much of the public. Some students at the University, along with members of the Middletown community, tried to shift the focus back toward political fundraising on Wednesday, April 13 at Russell Library.
The discussion, titled “Taking Back Democracy: People-Powered Solutions,” was hosted by both ConnPIRG and the Connecticut League of Women Voters (LWVCT). It revolved around concrete ways to address the nationwide crisis of big money’s dominance in political elections.
“The discussion centered around small-donor empowerment solutions that help ensure candidates can run competitive people-powered campaigns, leading to elected officials spending more time representing constituents and less time catering to and fundraising from large donors,” a press release written by ConnPIRG Organizer Meghan Hassett stated. “The speakers, which included Congressman Larson’s press secretary and Michael Brandi, Executive Director of the State Elections Enforcement Commission and Administrator of the Citizens’ Election Program (CEP), discussed how wealthy donors, corporations, and special interest groups are able to drown out the voices of everyday Americans, leading to disproportional influence in the decision making of elected officials.”
Hassett credited the importance of this discussion to her passion for the environment and corporate accountability.
“The influence of big money in politics means that special interests like the fossil fuel industry have the ear of politicians more than their constituents do,” Hassett wrote in an email to The Argus. “It could take one meeting to set up a policy that protects polluters and harms our health and our environment, where we would need tons of grassroots power and tons of people taking action to counter that. If you’re someone who cares about people having a say in the goings-on of their country or their city, and if you’re someone who cares about the planet, or really any issue that affects regular people, we need to stop big money dominance in our elections in order to actually address that and make progress.”
The discussion that ensued highlighted the opportunity that Middletown has to take matters into its own hands and become a leader in campaign finance reform.
“As Congress is gridlocked and the state’s program is facing constant threats, the best way to really show Congress and the state assembly that getting big money out of politics is a priority is to enact a program right here that empowers small donors,” Hassett wrote. “We know that Mayor Drew and some Council members are already in favor of these kinds of solutions, which is really exciting. Middletown saw [on Wednesday] night how this problem truly is solvable with enough action on the grassroots level, and I think Middletown can and should take the lead and create a system here that makes voters more important and lobbyists and city contractors much less important.”
However, this discussion is not only important to the Middletown community, but also to the community at the University. Much of Hassett’s work since the fall has involved students from the University, in the form of both interns and students who came out to the event.
Madeline Johl ’17 has been working as an intern for the Impact team under Hassett. In preparation for this event, Johl helped spread awareness about this topic and the event to students at the University, ConnPIRG members, and Middletown residents.
“This issue is important to me as a young voter,” Johl wrote in an email to The Argus. “I have only had the opportunity to vote in small, municipal elections and budget proposals so far. What I loved about those votes was feeling like I was making a sizable impact—that by voting, my voice was accounted for. I feel that when we get into state and federal elections, people find the opposite to be true. This issue of maximizing the voice of ordinary voters is important to me because I want my voice and the voice of my peers heard, and have this be reflected in how we are represented within our government.”
Johl believes the topics discussed at this event can empower students at the University by showing them that they can have a say in politics through their voices and their votes. It’s the kind of ideology that could even provide incentive for students to get more involved with the local community.
“For example, one of the great programs they spoke of was the CEP program in Connecticut, which would truly enable and encourage candidates to get involved with their community,” Johl wrote. “For students registered to vote in CT, having the opportunity to engage with politicians will make Middletown and CT more of a home, where Wesleyan students and Middletown residents can work together to make Middletown a greater place to live for all.”
Regardless of what city one considers home, Hassett described nationwide issues, such as this one, as an opportunity for the University and Middletown to come together to work on the issue. In particular, students who are interested in campaign finance reform should call Senator Blumenthal’s office in Connecticut. Blumenthal recently co-sponsored the Fair Elections Now Act, which is focused on curbing the influence of lobbyist groups and PACs.
“It’s important to take an active role in the things you care about, especially since this is a problem around the country,” Hassett wrote. “I think this event was important for any Wesleyan students because we were able to take a pretty daunting issue that seems insurmountable and talk about concrete ways to deal with it. However, those ways can only happen if enough people take time out of their day and break out of their bubble to actively show their support and call upon their legislators.”