Questioning the system

The angry folks who braved bone-chilling winds to rally for campaign-finance reform on Feb. 26 were fired up about the recent revelations concerning how much some local candidates had spent in their bids to secure positions in city government. And the fact that some of these candidates also fed at the trough of the political action committee Citizens for New Leadership only further fueled these citizens’ fears that big money is now dominating even the most local political contests.

Rather than lashing out at this particular group of politicians, however — who broke no laws in their successful election bids — the speakers at the rally aimed their verbal jabs at a system for financing political campaigns that they believe is spiraling out of control.

A quick scan of the roughly 50 people in attendance showed that even in a city as politically diverse as Asheville, there is at least one issue that can bring people together. Blue-haired grandmothers stood in solidarity with tattooed anarchists; young activists cheered alongside dark-suited establishment types; even anti-zoning zealots found common ground with their pro-zoning foes (which has got to be a sign of the Apocalypse).

The rally was organized by Concerned Citizens for Campaign Finance Reform, a coalition including such diverse groups as The League of Women Voters, Common Cause, Taxpayers for Accountable Government, the Council of Independent Peacemakers and Democracy South. Lewis Lankford, co-owner of Asheville’s West End Bakery, kicked things off with a rousing speech. One of the cornerstones of democracy, he noted, is the belief that all people are created equal, and although society is divided into the haves and the have-nots, the electoral process is supposed to be a place where people can still come together as equals.

Waving a dollar bill in front of the crowd, Lankford remarked that though it was only a thin piece of paper, “When gathered together, as they were in this election, they can form a wedge that blocks the door of government. When gathered together, they can build a wall that blocks the democratic process. We are here today to ensure that that wall is never built in Asheville.”

Lankford was followed by former state Rep. Marie Colton, who now works for Common Cause, a nonprofit organization that advocates campaign-finance reform. Colton greeted the crowd by commenting, “I wish I could say I am happy to be here, but I’m not. I’d rather not be here — nor should you be here. But this is a very troubling issue.” Pointing out how the money spent on local and state elections has escalated to a level that’s out of all proportion to the salaries these officeholders receive, she urged her audience to work for reform at all levels of government.

Next up was Adam Sotak, a field organizer for Democracy South (a Raleigh-based nonprofit organization that works on campaign-finance reform). Sotak prefaced his comments with some humorous advice: “A legendary poker player named Amarillo Slim once said, ‘If ya ever sit down at a poker table and look at the other players and can’t spot the sucker — get up from the table, cuz you’re the sucker.’” Turning his attention to the subject of massive campaign spending and fund-raising, Sotak continued the poker analogy, asking, “Who’s dealing?” and “Who’s shuffling the deck.” He also cited some surprising statistics, asserting that “1 percent of North Carolina’s population gives 90 percent of the campaign contributions in state elections,” and “in state elections, the biggest spender wins 86 percent of the time.”

After the speakers, local band Scrappy Hamilton entertained the crowd with a free show, dramatically living up to its name amid the arctic conditions. It takes a scrappy person to keep on plucking a standup bass when the wind-chill factor is in the single digits — and exposed digits are rapidly turning blue.

Some rally participants carried their battle cry into City Council chambers. During the public-comment portion of that day’s formal session, League of Women Voters President Nelda Holder urged Council to appoint a citizens’ advisory committee to study local campaign-finance reform in preparation for the next election, calling for an end to what the reform coalition is calling “wealth primaries.”

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