Lawrence Lessig: A Presidential Candidate with Nonprofit Cred and a Mission

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Larry-Lessig

August 11, 2015; Bloomberg News

If the 2016 presidential campaign for both major political parties weren’t unusual enough, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig has added yet another change to the picture. Already on the Republican side, there is a battle royal among more than a dozen announced candidates, several of them polling mere decimal points above zero but still hanging in. Among Democrats, a message campaign launched by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has suddenly become serious amidst a number of other putative challengers to front runner Hillary Clinton, including Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee and Virginia’s Jim Webb, who barely register in the nation’s consciousness.

Now comes Lawrence Lessig. For most people, he is at best an obscure Harvard law school professor who would be unknown to them but for the news reports today announcing his presidential candidacy. But for nonprofits and good government activists, Lessig is a significant and widely known player. Once a sort of Republican/libertarian, Lessig evolved into a Democrat whose major contribution to political discourse in recent years has been an unrelenting focus on the corrupting influence of money in politics. His widely read book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It, takes aim at money entering the political realm from corporations and secret dark money organizations. During Occupy Wall Street’s heyday, it was thought that the movement might adopt Lessig’s electoral reform ideas as a strategy around which activists might organize to combat the power and influence of the nation’s 1 percent (discussed here as a possible “second act” for Occupy).

As of yesterday, Lessig launched a presidential candidacy with the intention of fixing a “rigged system” of politics, but his electoral strategy is unique. He explained to Bloomberg Politics that he is running for president to get the Citizen Equality Act of 2017 passed. He would stay in office (as a “referendum president”) only so long as to get his campaign finance reform agenda passed, after which he would turn the office of president over to his vice president. In other words, Lessig would be a one-issue president, asking voters to elect him as a substitute of sorts for having a national referendum on campaign finance reform. In the interview, he added this pithy description of his presidency:

“It’s like a bankruptcy judge—they take over, reorganize, and give it back to the management. And that’s what I want to do here: I want to take this over, use the power that I have to force a reorganization, and then give it back to the politicians to run.”

The Citizen Equality Act of 2017 doesn’t exist yet, but Lessig explains that elements of what it would contain have been introduced in Congress in various forms. From Lessig’s campaign webpage, it appears that the Citizen Equality Act would call for redrawing congressional districts so that “each citizen (would have) as close to equal political influence as possible,” including ending gerrymandering and creating multi-member districts with candidates elected through ranked-choice voting, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a national holiday, providing all citizens a voucher for donations to presidential and congressional campaigns (with small dollar contributions matched by government funds), and shutting the revolving door between government service and lobbying. (In his comments to Bloomberg, Lessig acknowledged that voter ID laws were a problem and suggested that they would also be addressed in the Citizen Equality legislation.)

In a nod to the current presidential fad of being less and less specific with the details of proposals, at least at the outset, Lessig hopes to raise $1 million by Labor Day to launch his campaign, after which the campaign would “crowdsource a process to complete the details of this reform.”

Although by electing Lessig president, voters would be picking his successor as vice president, Lessig claims to have no preference for the VP nod, suggesting that he would leave that up to the Democratic Party convention. He did, however, express interest in candidates “willing to take on bold ideas and push them strongly,” mentioning Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the right kind of people, but he acknowledges that it’s also important to choose “the kind of person who could inspire the base enough to make sure that we win the next election.”

Lessig made it very clear that his presidential campaign would be completely separate from the Mayday PAC, which he helped establish to identify and support congressional candidates who would actively promote campaign finance reform. Interestingly, Mayday PAC has recruited Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham law professor who challenged Andrew Cuomo in his most recent primary for reelection, as a board chair and CEO, and as a board member, Kahlil Byrd, who was president of Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst education reform group. Lessig must hope that his presidential campaign will be more successful than Mayday PAC, which spent $10 million to support campaign finance reform candidates who largely lost across the board—except for North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a very conservative Republican (running for a safe seat) known for his belief that 501(c)(3) public charities and churches should be able to engage in partisan politics. Writing for Politico, Byron Tau and Kenneth P. Vogel called it “money down the drain.” Lessig seemed a little sensitive to the critiques of Mayday PAC, suggesting that the “East Coast political class” tends to “scorn” “bold experiments”:

“You know, what Mayday did was really thicken my skin. Because, fine, people are going to be nasty and critical, and they’re going to try to frame this in as perverse a way as possible. And so what? I accept that, that’s just the nature of the way people get eyeballs to articles.”

The lesson he says he learned from Mayday is that supporting three or four dozen congressional candidates around the country is simply insufficient for galvanizing public attention to the need for campaign finance reform, thus his new strategy of a presidential campaign that becomes a surrogate for a national referendum. While Lessig acknowledges that Sanders is campaigning against the wealth inequities of the country, Lessig believes that he would be focused on power inequities that cross social and economic classes in a way the Sanders campaign cannot. Lessig comes to the campaign with a strong nonprofit pedigree, including service on the advisory boards of Creative Commons and the Sunlight Foundation. Will his candidacy jump-start a campaign discussion on the pernicious role of money in political campaigns or simply add to the nation’s current presidential cacophony?—Rick Cohen