THIS SPRING the new president of Common Cause took a quick trip to Chicago to participate in a discussion about the media business - a hot topic given the pending brazen effort by corporate colossuses to get even more huge at the public interest's expense.
The experience convinced Chellie Pingree (a state senator, chronic reformer, and activist as well as last year's Democratic challenger of Senator Susan Collins of Maine) to make joining the crusade against the Federal Communications Commission a Common Cause issue.
Back in Washington she began speaking out, joining other groups that were already trying to stop the FCC from helping Big Media get bigger. Together, they sponsored a series of full-page newspaper advertisements calling attention to the issue.
Then the most amazing thing happened.
Nationally, the fact that a few people and citizens' groups were willing to stick their necks out elicited a torrent of public reaction. With no organization whatsoever, the FCC was inundated with nearly a million messages - the largest public reaction ever to a pending matter before the typically insider-dominated agency. Virtually all opposed the attempt to expand media concentration in the alleged interest of efficiency.
Under the haughty but politically challenged leadership of chairman Michael Powell, the FCC went ahead and on a 3-2 partisan vote approved the regulatory relaxation, but the public outcry has been so loud and sustained that last week the Senate Commerce Committee voted by a wide, bipartisan margin to reinstate the media ownership restrictions.
Against the combined heft of President Bush and Tom DeLay's House of Representatives the chances of a full congressional override of a veto remain dim, but the politics of the high-stakes issue have changed utterly, and the outraged public has found its voice.
What happened nationally had its counterpart for Common Cause, the 33-year-old citizens' group, which is looking to an experienced state legislator with a solid record of accomplishment in health care and election reform for fresh energy.
No sooner had the anti-media concentration ads been published than Common Cause got some 60,000 direct inquiries from the public, and half of those people ended up becoming new members; in one week the group raised more money off the Internet than it ever had before. For a group with 200,000 members and 35 active state chapters around the country, this is not hay.
With private power and influence-peddling on the ascendancy, Pingree says this is a propitious moment to direct Common Cause more toward its roots as a ''citizens' lobby'' after several years in the forefront of the fight for campaign finance reform.
''Helping people to participate at this juncture makes a lot of sense,'' she told me in her office last week, ''when everybody seems to be organized but the people. In soaking up our history, I think Common Cause has not tried just to be an expert on selected policy issues but to be there to fight against inappropriate influence, government and congressional secrecy, and the influence of big money. At its core Common Cause is a political organization.''
Its history has had two phases. It was founded by one of clean government's heroes, the late John Gardner - a Republican when moderates were more welcome and a veteran of Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet who left to oppose the Vietnam War. Much of the group's reputation derives from his principled efforts against the forces that get between citizens and their government.
Under Fred Werthheimer, in many respects the country's foremost crusader against unregulated campaign money, Common Cause essentially led the campaign finance reform crusade that culminated in the passage of the McCain-Feingold law two years ago, which now faces its ultimate test before a conservative Supreme Court.
This is a good moment for a shift, and Pingree's Maine background is more than relevant. She is not only one of the founders of the state's bipartisan Clean Elections system, which trades public money for spending limits (her daughter is a Clean Elections-supported state legislator); she was also the leader in taking on the drug companies to enact Maine's innovative program to make prescription drugs more available and less costly, which has miraculously survived initial court challenges. Just this year, moreover, the state enacted an incremental program to get to universal health insurance at a time most states are reducing their efforts.
''I'm one person who sees a direct connection between less influence for big money and a better chance to promote change on a less partisan basis,'' she said.
Like Senator Collins, Pingree accepted soft money-financed help from her national party in her Senate race. In addition, the Federal Election Commission (which Common Cause thinks should be abolished for uselessness) has begun an audit of her campaign. Pingree, who has been around the block, welcomes the backhanded attention.
More important, at a time when too many private interests have way too much clout, the citizens' lobbies are stirring. For those who like to cause the right kind of trouble, Chellie Pingree is a welcome addition to the fight.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.