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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