As members of the campaign finance reform project NHRebellion prepared for an 11-mile stretch of their cross-state march last week, temperatures hovered below 10 degrees.
In the lobby of the Comfort Inn in Manchester, a group of about 25 marchers, many of whom are New Hampshire natives, zipped themselves into layers of fleece and North Face gear and lined their pockets with hand warmers. Walk organizers reminded everyone to be safe while exposed to harsh weather and road traffic.
“Hopefully everyone’s wearing long underwear,”said Japhet Els, the trip director. “Keep an eye on each other. If you see white spots on your neighbor’s cheeks, tell us right away.”
From Jan. 10 to Jan. 24 a group of 16 through-walkers, plus anywhere from 30 to 60 more walkers on any given day, tackled the elements in efforts to encourage citizens in New Hampshire to make what NHRebellion calls the “system of corruption” pervading the country’s government the central issue in the 2016 presidential primary. It’s the first of the NHRebellion’s three planned cross-state treks before before the primaries.
NHRebellion, a project of Rootstrikers, is the brainchild of Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University and founder of Rootstrikers, an activist network opposed to corruption in government.
“When I decided to do this I kind of expected we would have like five or six people. But it’s turned into something incredibly big, with lots of people. And more interesting is how many people in New Hampshire know what we’re doing,” Lessig said.
On their first day, heading south from Dixville Notch, Lessig and his posse were hit with an intense ice storm. Nearly two weeks later, the group began the last legs of the 185-mile march in good spirits.
First-district Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter bundled up to join them for the beginning of the trek.
“Thank you for doing this” Shea-Porter told the group. “I’m in Congress and know we can’t reform ourselves alone. We need all of you to do this.”
They soldiered over mounds of snow, single file, holding up signs and waving at drivers who honked as they drove by.
“They honk and they are encouraging which is nice, and they slow down, which is nice,” said Peterborough resident Dotti Penny, who held signs throughout the walk to alert cars. “There are so many interesting people and so much information that I just would not have had contact with if I didn’t join.”
The issue: big money corruption
Before Lessig zeroed in on the corrupting influence of big money, he’d been researching Internet and copyright issues since about 1999. In 2007, 23-year old Aaron Swartz asked Lessig how he expected to make any progress on other issues so long as corruption defines our government. (Swartz, who became a national icon for anti-corruption and Internet-freedom, later took his own life while facing prosecution on multiple hacking charges.) The elemental question Swartz asked him prompted Lessig to stop his work on Internet and copyright issues and focus exclusively on corruption.
Lessig and other marchers use the word corruption a lot, but they are not calling politicians or congress corrupt, said Szelena Gray, media relations for NHRebellion. Rather, they assert that the framework politicians have been working within is corrupt.
“The problem within our system is not the amount of money, or the amount of political ads. … It’s the way the money is raised,” Lessig said. “If you spend all of your time raising money from the tiniest fraction of the 1 percent, you can’t help but be bent towards the interest of the people you’re raising money from.”
Lessig said the most important factor in getting elected or re-elected is the amount of money candidates raise from big donors. In order to get re-elected, politicians have to keep their funders happy first. He said members of Congress and candidates for Congress spend from 30 to 70 percent of their time raising money, which means they are not focusing on making policies or governing. And when they are, he said, they have big funders’ interests in mind.
“It’s not that the people with the money are using the money to push policy towards the best possible policy. They are using their money and their intelligence to push it towards the policy that benefits them,” Lessig said.
Grey said the group talks broadly about what “corruption” means because they want people to understand that the government is broken, and they aspire to engage a wide population of voters beyond the partisan divide.
They saw that happen during their walk. For instance, at the beginning of last week, they were joined by a New Hampshire couple. The man was conservative and woman identified as progressive, Grey said. But this is an issue they agree on.
The walk’s genesis
Last October, Lessig spoke at a New Hampshire event and Jeff McLean, a political reformer and nonprofit supporter, was in the audience. They got together and discussed creating a New Hampshire-based front. The began planning last November and released those plans in December.
The march brings together three key symbols: Granny D, Swartz, and the Granite State. As the first state in a series of nationwide party primary elections, New Hampshire has the political spotlight to be influential nationwide, Lessig said. In addition to the marches he hopes to have meetups and educational opportunities to recruit people to advocate for campaign finance reform, which could then translate into widespread attention and focus for the upcoming elections.
The idea of walking came from New Hampshire native Doris “Granny D” Haddock. Fifteen years ago, 88 year-old Granny D walked more than 3,200 miles across the country to advocate for campaign finance reform. As a nod to her, the NHRebellion ended its march on her birthday, Jan. 24.
When Lessig measured the walk, he realized the end date would mean they would begin around Jan. 11, the day that Swartz committed suicide a year ago.
“Swartz was obsessively focused on pushing, on making the world a better place according to his own conception. … That was his life. He was constantly going and collaborating and pushing,” Lessig said.
The two bookend dates represent the advocates’ desire to link generations that are all affected by issues of corruption.
“You want a simpler tax system? You’re not going to get it,” Lessig said. “You’re not going to get global warming legislation. You’re not going to get real healthcare reform, or Wall Street reform as long as this is the way we fund elections. ...We have to change the way we raise money.”
As seen in the January 30, 2014 issue of the Hippo.