In Norman today and Monday, veteran political luminaries from both sides of the aisle are convening to figure out how America can end the polarization and extreme partisanship in today's political process. But the answer isn't an independent candidate, such as Michael Bloomberg. Instead, they could concentrate on tackling an even larger breach in our democracy - the division between our country's elite political class and the ordinary Americans those politicians are supposed to serve. How wide is that breach? People living in one zip code on the Upper East Side of New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg resides, have contributed more than $10 million in large contributions (more than $200) toward 2008 races, double the $5.2 million donated by people in the entire state of Oklahoma, according to Opensecrets.org.
Big money is driving up the costs of campaigning and preventing candidates who are strong on brains, people skills, independence and vision - but who don't have access to deep pockets - from running for and winning office. Endless fundraising steals the focus of our leaders, requiring that they spend less time leading the nation to solutions that work for all Americans, regardless of their ability to make a political donation.
Called together by David Boren, the University of Oklahoma president and former senator, the participants in the discussion certainly are no strangers to fundraising and politics. Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman reportedly repeatedly locked horns with President Bush's campaign contributors when she lobbied for tougher environmental standards. And former Sen. Chuck Robb, D-Va., was outspent $20 million to $7 million in his narrow 2000 election loss to George Allen.
Full public financing of elections would get us out of this swamp. It already has cross-aisle appeal and bipartisan leadership. In March, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., introduced the Senate version of the Fair Elections Now Act, a policy that has been implemented in seven states and two cities, often under the banner "Clean Elections."
These successful state models can show the way forward. In states as different as Arizona and Maine, candidates who collect a set amount of $5 donations can qualify for public money to run their campaigns. Participating candidates must forgo all private donations and agree to a campaign spending limit. If they face a privately financed opponent, "Fair Fight" funds are available to keep the race on a level playing field. Nine of 11 statewide officeholders in Arizona and eighty percent of state lawmakers in Maine used Clean Elections.
The support transcends party and ideological lines. Business leaders such as Costco CEO Jim Sinegal, and Arnold Hiatt, former CEO of Stride Rite, are joining with the country's largest labor unions to support this policy. Testifying at a Senate hearing last year was former Republican Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire.
American democracy could use a shot in the arm right now. It's time to invite our citizens back into the process on terms that respect our nation's founding promise of political equality.
Nyhart is the president and CEO of Public Campaign, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to reform that aims to dramatically reduce the role of big special interest money in American politics.