Q&A: Liberal and Conservative Campaign-Finance Reformers Unite in Cleveland

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Morris Pearl, chair of the group Patriotic Millionaires, and John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic, took the stage on the “speaker’s platform” set up in Public Square, a few blocks from where the convention was being held at Quicken Loans Arena, and spoke about the need for reducing the influence of money in politics.

Pearl was a managing director at BlackRock, one of the largest investment firms in the world, before turning full-time to campaign-finance reform work two years ago. Pudner spent decades as a Republican campaign strategist, having worked most recently on the campaign of Dave Brat who unseated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, despite being outspent 26 to 1.

Both Pearl and Pudner sat down with The American Prospect in Cleveland to discuss their shared effort to reform the U.S. campaign-finance system. This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Prospect: How are Republicans responding to your call for reform?

John Pudner: The Trump people are definitely more receptive. They feel like money was trying to screw them in this race, and they got through it and won. Now, that’s a broad generalization—your anti-Trump people tend to be more in the camp of resisting anything that ruffles the system. They had the money lined up behind Jeb [Bush], and they’re kind of ticked. The two main groups within the Republican circles that resist these changes are: 1) the people who feel like they benefit off the system and are part of this political-industrial complex; and 2) those who have a legitimate concern about retribution, whether their business gets targeted, say. The second group we can at least talk to. But the ones who are just working the system, you’re never going to convince them.

How did you arrive at the conclusion that our campaign-finance system was in serious need of overhaul?

Pudner: I gradually came to this issue just watching everything from candidate selection, through the actual campaign, through the officials once elected. The people who had real grassroots influence in the early races I was running were becoming less and less a factor, or even a consideration. Candidates weren’t even talking to them. The [Dave] Brat race was the culmination—just seeing the kind of money that went in, seeing how scared people were to contribute to Dave or even support him for risk of what opposing the majority leader might mean. Even though [Brat] ultimately won that race, I came to the conclusion that we can’t win this thing one election at a time. It has to be a systemic change.

Morris Pearl: I’d worked in the financial services industry for many years. I became interested in politics during the [2004] Howard Dean campaign. My wife wanted to go to the convention; she’s a real fan of politics. And a few phone calls and a few tens of thousands of dollars found us ensconced in the Four Seasons Hotel playing pool with Ben Affleck. Then, part of my job became figuring out how much bailouts were costing taxpayers. One day, I was at a meeting in Athens, Greece, watching a demonstration moving down the street toward the parliament building. And I looked behind me, and there were 20 people just enjoying a fancy lunch. I wasn’t doing anything to help most of the people in Greece—just the 20 people in the room. So I decided to change careers and work on politics.

Do you see a new movement underway to get big money out of politics?

Pearl: It’s making a lot more progress than it was ten years ago. I’ll give some credit to Senator [Bernie] Sanders for making it an issue, but it’s been an issue for a while in places like New York City, which has a campaign-finance law that’s changing the face of the city council—there’s fewer people who are brothers-in-law of real-estate developers, and it’s changing the policies we have in New York City. It’s making it possible for different people to run for office, who were not able to run before.

Pudner: We are seeing some growth on the conservative side. Now admittedly, it started very small. We’ve put things in a way conservatives can understand, that they don’t win in this system either. The most important thing was to make conservative reformers feel like there was a home for them on campaign-finance reform. If you don’t have a group to join, you might shift to another issue. But this is the core issue.

What are some of the specific policy proposals that your groups plan to advance? Any notable disagreements?

Pearl: [Patriotic Millionaires] is in favor of requiring disclosure of political campaign donations, in favor of the SEC requiring disclosure of corporate political spending, in favor of the government requiring disclosure of federal contractors’ political spending: It’s the old theory that the best disinfectant is sunlight.

We’re also in favor of rules promoting public matching of small-donor financing and limited amounts of total donations allowed. It works slightly differently in New York City and Connecticut and Oregon and Maine, but the basic idea is that candidates have to collect small donations from a whole bunch of people to prove viability, and then get some additional public matching of those small donations.

Pudner: There are, I’m sure, going to be some tweaks in exact proposals we prefer. For example, from the conservative perspective, Take Back Our Republic prefers tax credits to vouchers being sent to people, which a lot of progressive groups would say is more equitable. Conservatives would generally prefer a tax credit, because they would prefer withholding something they were going to send the IRS.

But in Washington state, there’s no income tax so we back the voucher, because we’d rather have that than nothing. It may be that we’re occasionally backing something that is not our ideal solution, but at least we’re coming as close as we can and agreeing that either of our solutions is much better than the current state. If we’re down to arguing little details, we’ve won.

What are your reactions to the Republican and Democratic platforms, and Clinton’s recent announcement that she would support a constitutional amendment to undue the 2010 Citizens United decision?

Pearl: I’ve been pleased to see some of the things that Clinton has said recently. A constitutional amendment to end Citizens United is a direction we should go, but I don’t think Citizens United is the end-all, be-all, or that the large amounts of political spending by outside groups is the only problem we have. I would like to see something like what New York City has be mandatory for the whole country and all political races. Now, I don’t think that’s likely to happen anytime soon, but we’re taking on smaller things, like state-by-state initiatives.

Pudner: There are definitely good campaign-finance reforms in the Democratic platform, and I’m glad we got a few of them in the Republican one [like limits to foreign money and better regulation of credit-card contributions]. The system was already so broken [before Citizens United], so to wait around for a constitutional amendment would take years. There are so many other things we can do.

How would you describe the differences in messaging between Cleveland and Philadelphia?

Pearl: I feel that my views are pretty close to mainstream in the Democratic Party. So I represent the groups that we’ll be talking to in Philadelphia [for the Democratic National Convention]. Here in Cleveland, for this convention, I feel that we’re in a more radical position.

Pudner: For Republicans, we had to put things in very conservative terms: “Don’t you want to keep the first $200 you would have given the IRS and instead give it to a candidate who will be a better steward of your money?” Or, “Look how bad foreign money is.” There was sort of an assumption among Republicans that, well, we’ll always have this huge money edge; this system, while corrupt, helps us in the end. But Hillary is going to outraise Trump by a ton. This is the year you say, look, this system won’t always work in your favor—stop thinking of this as some huge partisan advantage.

You two hadn’t met until a couple days ago. Will you continue working together?

Pudner: Certainly. [Take Back Our Republic] is going to work with a lot of groups that we probably disagree with on eight of nine other issues. But on campaign finance we agree. In Philadelphia, we’re doing the same thing as here. 

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