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Q&A with the Harvard law professor raising millions to end financial political corruption

Harvard law Professor Lawrence Lessig is out to raise millions of dollars to end financial political corruption. With enough money, he believes he can create a political action committee (PAC) that wins enough congressional elections to make campaign finance reform a top issue.

At midnight tonight, he has a self-imposed deadline to raise $5 million dollars, in order to receive matching funds of the same amount toward for his MayDay political “SuperPAC”. He already met his first deadline to raise $1 million.

On the eve of his potential victory, I had some questions about why Lessig thinks he can overturn one of the most pervasive aspects of American democracy. While his cause may be noble, if it’s unrealistic, he might as well be hunting for leprechaun gold to reduce the federal debt.

Here is my Q&A with him:

Q: Very briefly, how would you describe the goals and methods of your campaign finance project?

Lessig: The goal is to win a Congress committed to fundamental reform by 2016. To do that, we are running first a pilot campaign in 2014 — 5 districts, selected to demonstrate that this issue matters to voters, and to establish what will take to win a Congress in 2016.

Q: How much have you raised to date?

We are just about at $5 million raised to day.

Q: At most, MayDay will be able elect a few junior congressmen. How will that influence a Congress where the agenda is set by the leaders?

The aim in 2014 is not to elect enough to change any laws. The aim is to change an attitude — that this issue is not important to voters. That is the predicate to the much bigger race in 2016, that, if successful in electing a majority committed to fundamental reform, will also be enough to convince leadership to take it up.

Q: In order for you to reach your goal of a reformed campaign finance system, how many candidates do you think you’ll need to elect?

30 to 45 members, depending on the 2014 election.

Q: What’s wrong with online fundraising? Candidates like Barack Obama raised millions for small donors. Isn’t that like what you want to see for campaign finance?

That kind of fundraising may work for the President (though importantly, small contributions were just a tiny proportion of this last election). [Editorial note: his answer is in millions]

It certainly won’t work for Congress:

Q: Populism has it drawbacks. Tea Party candidates raise a lot of money from small donations, and elect representatives who would rather shut down the government than compromise. Are you worried about the consequences, even if you’re successful?

Like the Tea Party, we want the people we help elect to do the thing that they promise — pass fundamental reform in the way campaigns are funded. I’m not worried about the consequences of that.

Q: Are there any countries which match your ideal of a good campaign finance system and what are the results?

We can’t really match country for country because (1) we are not a parliamentary system (where the elections are not regular), and (2) we have a uniquely strong Free Speech clause. But other countries do avoid the kind of corrupting influence we see in America. It isn’t inevitable. It shouldn’t be acceptable.

Q. Why should Silicon Valley care about this cause?

The Silicon Valley I know is keen to innovate with new technology and new products. It has no desire to innovate in new ways to influence DC. If we win, we significantly change need to play the “influence DC” game. Not just Silicon Valley, but especially Silicon Valley, should care about this.

Note: learn more about MayDay and contribute to the campaign here.


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