Szelena Gray

Of, By, For the Money

Air Date: September 19, 2015

Szelena Gray explains how Millennials are reforming politics.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Harvard Divinity School alum turned campaign finance reform missionary—my guest today is at the forefront of democracy and youth empowerment. Co-founder of Run for America and Chief Operating Officer of the Mayday PAC, Szelena Gray advises this Super PAC to defeat all Super PACs. An extension of this campaign is the New Hampshire Rebellion, a citizen movement against big money corruption in the fiercely independent, first in the nation primary state, poised to restore integrity to a broken political system. In her newer role, Szelena Gray is developing Run for America’s citizen powered movement to elect a new breed of millennial politicians, in the spirit of the nation’s founders. While Mayday’s candidates did suffer some bruising some defeats last cycle, 2016 presents a new opportunity. So first let me ask, Szelena, how are these organizations going to capitalize on the profound frustration with American democracy today.

GRAY: That is an excellent question. We live in an era of untold spending on elections and with that, I think, new and creative opportunities for how to combat that spending and the corruption that it breeds. Mayday PAC is very much borne of that irony, and is the brainchild – as you said – of somebody who wants to exploit that irony for ending that brutal system. So I think as we look to 2016 and what Mayday PAC and New Hampshire Rebellion and so many other organizations in the democracy reform space are trying to do, what we are seeing is a really creative exploration of how we can use the political toolkit that is what has bred the corrupt system that we’re in – in a way that redefines it and opens up new opportunities to fix it.

HEFFNER: Fix it. So your mentor, Larry Lessig wrote recently an op-ed in The New York Times. “If the core problem is politicians beholden to their funders, then giving Congress the power to limit the amount spent or the amount contributed would not resolve it…” And he identifies the movement from Secretary of State Clinton and Senator Sanders who add a Constitutional Amendment that would add some restrictions to campaign financing. “Regardless,” he continues, “…regardless of how much was spent, the private funding of public campaigns, even with limits would inevitably reproduce the world we have now.”

GRAY: I think Mayday starts from a very simple place, which is addressing the issue of Congress. And that is one, one of many pieces that we have to think about. But just starting with Mayday, I think what Larry’s getting at and I think what we all understand is that there is a problem in our government, we have to fix it. We know that most Americans believe that corruption is something that all members of leadership and government need to address, especially looking at 2016. But we also know that Americans don’t favor reforms that require excess spending in a system and in a political climate, frankly, where that excess spending is already making us all feel very nervous. So it’s easy for leaders at the Presidential, Congressional, at any level, to advocate for something like a Constitutional remedy because that doesn’t require thinking through the legislative remedy. It’s hard to advocate for public financing, which is really what we need, um, and where Mayday starts. So Mayday’s mission is to clear a path to reform in Congress by, um, encouraging members of Congress both through our direct grassroots work this year and through, um, making that work dovetail into electioneering in the election years. Um, encouraging members of Congress to support one of a few different remedies that could create a small-dollar public financing system. And that is how Mayday seeks to address this problem. But Larry is absolutely right that, uh, no matter what, if we don’t address the system of public financing, if we don’t advocate for small dollars in our elections, no matter what, there is no real solution to this problem.

HEFFNER: In terms of the corporate influence… it’s rigged in their favor now. How did we get here?

GRAY: [LAUGHS]

HEFFNER: How, how do you think that we, that we got here?

GRAY: Campaign finance reform actually has a long history in this country. And forgoing the, the long, long history and just going back to, you know, 30 years ago, McCain-Feingold was really in response to the soft money boom that started in the ‘70s and 80’s and 90’s. And when McCain-Feingold was passed as this remedy to the increase in outside money, um, it was thought actually to be the solution that we needed. Unfortunately it was not. And as we all know, from 2002 to Citizens United, the, uh, increase in outside spending, um, and then the, the further impact that Citizens United and then SpeechNow had on our current system have only made things worse. But as Larry says, the system was broken the day before Citizens United. The system remained broken after Citizens United. The system was further broken after McCutcheon and we sit today in a true conundrum where we have many, many rulings and many, many moments in history where things could have gotten better and instead, the flood of money has just increased.

HEFFNER: How does money operate the system now, in your estimation?

GRAY: Sure. I mean, there are a couple of ways to think about this. You know, first and foremost and I think Larry is great at describing this, um, we have in this country two elections. We have the money primary and then we have the primary-primary, the real election. And what that means is that if I’m a person who is running for Congress or thinking about running for Congress, the first question that I’m going to ask myself or that any party person is going to ask me is how much money can I raise? And the real litmus test then for thinking about who leadership is, and who is stepping up to leadership is really this question of fundraising. We also know, for instance, thanks to many, many news reports on this fact, that when people come into Congress and as people are electioneering into Congress, they are spending upwards of 70 percent of their time fundraising. So, leadership, as we think of it in government, is really about fundraising leadership. And leadership, as we think about it in terms of running this country, um, isn’t happening. because members of Congress and elected officials are spending most of their time, unfortunately, dialing for dollars and not doing the jobs that they were elected to do. And now that is not to say that those members of Congress are evil or terrible or awful, um, but that they exist in a system where the cost of entry, getting into Congress, is getting higher and higher and higher. And in order to keep up with that, they have to keep fundraising and fundraising and fundraising.

HEFFNER: Well you described the system here, uh, in terms of forecasting what’s going to happen, Szelena. Uh, “… in the name of giving my demographic, this is younger women a voice in the 2016 election, an intricate and expensive campaign apparatus will come to life at the hands of an expert political class. It will attempt to charm me with its understanding of my burdens and my fears, and it will stoop to scaring me with horrific predictions for what could happen if I don’t act to support it.” So this is a very personal take on the exploitation, if you will, of the American voter.

GRAY: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: But the American voter doesn’t see it as exploitation. They don’t see the moneyed system as guaranteeing that their interests are not served.

GRAY: I think very simply as we look into the next election cycle, what we have to be aware of as voters, as citizens, as people who hopefully care about the future of this country, is that the people who are running for office are going to try to tell us over and over again that they believe that our government needs fixing, that they believe that we need reform. Everybody from Lindsey Graham to Ted Cruz to Chris Christie to Hillary Clinton are going to be saying, I want to fix government. I want to make this better.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

GRAY: And what I think is very important is that we realize that those are very thin words, that without real commitment to a system of small dollar public financing, those are just words. And I think as we know as a country, we have been in this situation before. We have had former Presidents commit to us that they are going to fix this country. We have had members of Congress and leaders on all levels of government commit to us that they see this problem as acutely as we do. Maybe we don’t all call it corruption or campaign finance reform. But we see the problem. We have to be aware as voters that if they do not commit to a real public financing option, they are not actually admitting that they see the problem and are committed to fixing it.

HEFFNER: So that’s the problem. And as you identified from the outset, there was the great paradox of this effort that is a Super PAC to end all Super PACs as the LA Times reported on you.

GRAY: Sure.

HEFFNER: The—and, and that paradox, I don’t think, is hypocritical but it’s, it’s as much as it is, uh, hard to resolve in actually making progress…so if you’ll bear with me for a second, you have lobbyists, you have mega-multi-billion dollar corporations that would invest in individual campaigns.

GRAY: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: You have smaller donors whom you are courting to support your campaign to ultimately overtake the influence of the one percent, if you will, of the, the vast preponderance of campaign contributors. But did you see, was there any incentive on the part of the moneyed interest to help topple their peers.

GRAY: I mean, this was the beauty of Mayday PAC. It wasn’t just small dollar, grassroots donations, in and of themselves. It was small dollar donations matched by big money, matched by wealthy people who could otherwise use their money to buy influence directly but instead bought into this idea of let’s invest these dollars to create a system whereby we could all have a better voice. So Mayday, for all of its successes and challenges, um, succeeded at this one thing—bringing a new class of donors into the political process. And our first FEC report filing, we, we noted internally that I think something close to 49 percent of our contributors are people who had never contributed before to a political campaign, which is huge. Especially in, in the campaign finance reform movement as a whole which suffers from being the most underfunded issue, uh, reform issue in this country with I think a total of 45 million dollars spent on it annually as of maybe last year. So, so yes, there are people, I think, who are committed to changing the system, who otherwise could use their wealth to just extract its benefits. And I think those people were the people who saw the, the faith and the hope and the possibility of Mayday PAC and other reform efforts.

HEFFNER: At the same time, in this cycle, there are Super PACS that operate essentially as campaigns. So all of the money can be funneled into these entities that really don’t have any restrictions.

GRAY: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Assuming there is no legal ground after Citizens United to challenge the conduct of, uh, Jeb Bush’s Super PAC for example. Is, are, are these, uh, Super PACs to the American people operating as campaigns, do the, do Americans realize that the Super PACs in essence are now the campaigns.

GRAY: You know, I, I mean, I can’t speak for how Americans perceive Super PACs. I know we all think of them as big, evil entities. I know, I know I do. The word Super PAC, is in and of itself, a little threatening. But I don’t think that Americans have even come to understand how much we are about to live in a totally new political era. Everything from Jeb Bush’s candidacy being defined by his Super PAC to, uh, the increasing outside spending that we saw in 2012 that’s steadily increasing as we head into the next cycle. To the fact that, you know, every day, um, when I receive my news clips, there’s always news of a new Super PAC that’s formed and a new filing. I think one of the interesting things that is also happening at the same time that we are seeing this explosion in outside money, um, is that we’re also seeing the FEC really wrestling with how to deal with that in the wake of not only Citizens United but also SpeechNow. So I wouldn’t say that there is no way to legally challenge. I think that the rise of Super PACs is, is an unknown beast for regulation. And I actually am heartened to see that, uh, right now for instance — the FEC is taking this seriously. They are pushing on Jeb Bush’s practices—which in, in my field, we think are a little sketchy. Um, and thinking through whether or not this increase in outside spending requires more regulation than previously existed.

HEFFNER: You feel that the millennials, uh, the potential aspirants that you’re courting to run to defeat the gridlock in Washington, to make it a more functional place, that they’re going to tout a message of, uh, not only being populist of the people, raising certain funds, but they’re going to tout the message that in order to create a fair playing field in a, in a campaign, each candidate has to start from some footing where they essentially not only have a platform, but have the means to be competitive.

GRAY: Run for America is a really exciting project for me because it starts from a slightly different place and ends up in the same place as Mayday PAC and every other reform effort that I’ve been involved in, which is this big question of how do you re-inspire Americans to engage in democracy and believe in its future. But where Run for America starts, uh, in a slightly different track, is with this question of how do you find new leadership? And through that new leadership, inspire the imagination of people my age and your age, that a new form of democracy could be brought in, that the promise of our founding fathers could actually one day be delivered. So where Run for America starts is with finding, recruiting, and then training those candidates and then running their campaigns. Whereas I think in, in the Mayday context, it’s a slightly different beast because we’re obviously not dealing with candidates directly. But also, we are entering the problem from a, a different track. So where I think the, the Run for, for America candidates are, are very different and kind of exciting is they’re not thinking about this the way that I think about this, from the perspective of, well we have this broken system and there needs to be a legislative remedy and it needs to solve these three problems. They’re not in the weeds. They’re much more, I think, where the American public is right now which is this recognition that we have a government that is stalled, that we have a government that isn’t working. And we have a really beautiful dream of democracy that hasn’t been realized. And, one of the most rewarding things, Run for America’s, of course, a startup so we’re only a few months in, about where it is right now is getting to see that vision for how we could transform things, realized through the eyes of somebody who’s never before thought about running for office and never really before thought about how it fix government.

HEFFNER: And therefore doesn’t assume that you have to be the biggest, baddest bully in order to win.

GRAY: Exactly.

HEFFNER: And that I think is what I was getting at, that candidates and their campaigns are operating as corporations in the culture of, you know, if you don’t raise enough money, you’re not gonna survive.

GRAY: Right. And we understand that in order to make these candidates competitive in the races we hope they will eventually run—and I should say we don’t actually have candidates yet. We are still in the process of defining who those will be. But in order to make them competitive obviously we need to enter into the arena with some ability to compete, with some amount of funding. But what is very exciting about where we’re starting from is we are not recruiting these candidates on the basis of how much money they can raise, which if they were being courted by parties, would be the first question they were asked. But instead on the question of …what is your history of leadership? What have you done in your community? Do you know how to problem-solve? And if you think about becoming a member of Congress as just a job, and a job description, those are the key pieces of, of qualifications and responsibilities that we should really be looking for in our leadership.

HEFFNER: And there’s other capital to be employed.

GRAY: Absolutely. You know, and what’s, what’s also exciting about Run for America and, and the way that it’s trying to disrupt and run a different kind of campaign is that it’s also seeking to take a lot of the things that we learned over the last five, ten years about how campaigns could be run more efficiently and effectively, everything from data driven campaigning to a focus on new voter engagement and turn out and it’s thinking about how we could do that in a way that perhaps brings down the cost of campaigns. But we’re not sure. That’s something we have to test. But in a way that, that takes the emphasis off of TV ads and broadcasting and instead puts it where we all know elections need to be won—which is in voter contact and real outreach.

HEFFNER: But do you think the millennials are going to buy that? When we’re virtually online 24-7? I mean, there’s still a game that’s being played on Facebook and Twitter.

GRAY: Sure. And we will play that game on Facebook and Twitter. But it’s not a game, really. I mean, you know, voter contact to me begins with social outreach. It’s, it’s meeting people where they are. And increasingly, people are not on the other side of a television. So it’s realizing that if we want to engage a new electorate. If we want to get more than 36 percent of Americans, which I think is the, the number that voted last cycle to, to really participate in our democracy, we have to meet them where they actually exist. And that is, matter of fact, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and, you know, face-to-face in rooms and across campuses and in cities across the nation.

HEFFNER: Where possible, where, where metrics are not… the ones that govern the future.

GRAY: [LAUGHS] Exactly.

HEFFNER: So in Run for America’s mission statement, uh, you want to reimagine politics, reinvigorate government and restore the promise of America for the 21st century.

GRAY: So when it comes to the Run for America candidates, we want real solutions. We want people who are not afraid to step up and say, I see a problem and here’s how I can act to fix it, and I think that’s something we do not see enough of in Congress. It’s not something we see enough of at all in politics – is people actually owning solutions we know they can act on, rather than just calling out big pie in the sky ideas.

HEFFNER: So are there any specific principles that are going to unify these candidates?

GRAY: So that’s also a very interesting concept within Run for America. We don’t want to bring together candidates and say, you know, a la the, the Newt Gingrich 1994 Republic takeover or, uh, the Grover Norquist tax pledge. We don’t want to bring them together and say, Here’s where you sign on the dotted line all of your rights away as leaders. We want to bring leaders together and say you are some of the most innovative people across this country and your solutions within your communities are things that need to be elevated to the national level, how can you solve some of our biggest problems? So, rather than us coming up with a policy platform that we have these candidates sign on a dotted line at some point, we want to bring them together. And we want them to think through what are the solutions to our, our nation’s most pressing problems. And of course, we have a sense, from, from polling and frankly from just where, where we are right now as a country of what those problems are. But I think it’s really important that if we are, if we are bringing in a new class of leadership, we first and foremost give them the opportunity to exercise that leadership and to define their own values and principles and solutions for the era of government that they are going to usher in.

HEFFNER: What’s going to be a different in young gun’s caucus than what we’ve seen before from the Blue Dogs or the Tea Party? How can you differentiate between them in terms of the clout that they’re going to earn?

GRAY: I think entrepreneurialism. I think there’s a real spirit of innovation that exists amongst our generation that I don’t want to say doesn’t exist amongst other generations. But, um, but that we have the ability to usher in, as we bring new blood, new leadership, new vision, new insight into Congress. So, I wouldn’t say this is exactly how they’re different from the Blue Dogs or this is exactly how they’re different from House Republicans or Senate Republicans or even Tea Party Republicans or Progressive Democrats. But I will say, that, bottom line, if we can bring in a group of individuals who are committed to fierce problem solving, to big picture thinking, to the spirit of innovation that has created, within our generation Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Airbnb and Uber. Then we have the ability to think through some of the solutions that we need in government in a way that I think others are not thinking.

HEFFNER: Entrepreneurialism, um, can be employed in the way that you’re describing in the private sector. And I often wonder, why something as potentially pro-social as Facebook or Twitter could not have been molded as a non-profit. And I’ve talked about this at this table with Sue Gardner and other people in the tech world. But won’t that demand from the private entities that, you know, are those players that supported Mayday for example, some collaboration between a new era of corporate leadership and a new era of political leadership.

GRAY: Well not to get into the weeds too much about Run for America’s political strategy, but one piece of it that is really important on this point is our desire to engage a new electorate -and to turn out new voters and races that otherwise we don’t think those voters would be engaged.

HEFFNER: Beyond races though, on an issue like immigration, where Mark Zuckerberg and some of the other people in the tech community have been outspoken…

GRAY: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: If they just made their position, uh, a little bit more politically oriented or a little bit, angled a little bit more in that direction, uh, than Run for America could not just be a good idea but pragmatically feasible, don’t you think?

GRAY: Well I would hope that Run for America is pragmatically feasible.

HEFFNER: [LAUGHS]

GRAY: But, but beyond that, I, I think what I’m trying to say in general is that obviously we are threading a very challenging needle and there have been others who came before us, FWD.us, Mayday PAC even, who, who have attempted similar, you know, high-risk, high-reward strategies for re-thinking government and solutions to its problems. But the engaging a new electorate piece of Run for America is important because what it means is that we are, we are attempting to give these leaders a new reason to, to do their jobs. And a new, um, a new class of people to be responsible to. And that’s very different. So if you think about a person who’s elected on the basis of how much money they can raise and how effectively they can fundraise, as opposed to a person who is elected because they were, they were able to turn out an entirely new class of voters, there is potentially a difference who in that person is ultimately accountable to. And therefore, to the kinds of solutions that they would propose as they head in to that leadership position.

HEFFNER: I mentioned Zuckerberg, and we’re wrapping up now, because everyone is reading what’s trending and, you know, I think that, the leverage that you can have on an issue when you have the leaders behind these, these platforms that are, I know that retail politics is still the bread and butter…

GRAY: Sure.

HEFFNER: … where, where possible, but do you, just very quickly, do you see Zuckerberg or any of these other tech figures coming out of the woodshed and, and being more political in the future?

GRAY: I think so. Though, I also think that as we are in a boom of reform politics and people and innovators wanting to invest in seeing government not necessarily just as a block of a change, but as an agent of change, there’s also, probably, a little bit of skepticism about the right way to do that, the right way to support it. And obviously, many of the people who come out supporting different reforms and organizations and change-making solutions have been vilified or have been picked apart, rightfully so, for mistakes, for misinvestments, things like that. So it’s a tough climate to invest in reform. At the same time, it is absolutely the moment that it matters. And I think what Run for America, what Mayday, what New Hampshire Rebellion, for instance does is it creates a really clear, concrete opportunity to think about how impact in a, in a small scale, how a leader from a small town in Ohio could have a solution to a problem that could be solved at the national level—that … that somebody within the realm of New Hampshire independent politics, could have a way of thinking about this issue, could push it to a level that could have national impact. And I think it’s that kind of, of solution scaling that we really desperately need and that makes these projects so important and relevant right now.

HEFFNER: Szelena, I’m sorry to say we’ve run out of time but thank you so much for joining me today.

GRAY: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other Open Mind interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @ OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.