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CONTRIBUTORS

OP-ED: The real security threat: Big money in politics

DONNA BRAZILE
YorkDispatch

An ordinary man sees an opportunity to try to make a difference in this country. Surrounded by cynicism for political reform and shady dealings between heavyweight political donors, he calculates drastic action must take place to get not only the American public to pay attention, but also for the system to change.

His actions are shut out and dismissed among the national press, distorting not only his message, but also his character.

This sounds like a plot summary for the classic 1939 Frank Capra film "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," starring Jimmy Stewart. But it is also the summary of what happened when Mr. Hughes flew to Washington last month in his gyrocopter.

Douglas Hughes is a 61-year-old mailman from a small town in Florida. Like Jimmy Stewart's character Jefferson Smith, Hughes felt compelled to tell the America public that change needs to happen in this country.

But without a podium in the Senate, a bill to filibuster or even a large check to produce to a congressional candidate, Hughes had to find another way to get the attention of Congress and the American public. So he flew to the Capitol, hoping to deliver 535 letters to each member of Congress.

While I don't condone flying a bicycle-like aircraft onto the lawn of the Capitol, his thorough, well-planned flight from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington was for a cause I deeply support: getting big money out of politics.

Every day we hear news stories about the fundraisers Jeb Bush is throwing, the checks some billionaire sugar daddy is writing to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., or how some ambiguously named dark-money group plans to spend tens of millions of dollars in 2016. We understand the problem so well that 90 percent of Americans believe we need to fix the way money and elections intertwine.

But currently, less than 10 percent of us believe something can be done about it. Hughes was trying to boost that second number up to 10 percent, 20 percent, 50 percent.

Hillary Rodham Clinton has begun focusing her 2016 efforts on campaign finance reform, including dabbling with an attempt to overturn the landmark case Citizens United. She was quoted in April in Iowa saying, "We need to fix our dysfunctional political system and get unaccountable money out of it once and for all."

For good reason.

Because there are solutions to get big money out of politics and to keep politicians accountable to the voters over the check-writers.

These solutions aren't just untested ideas. We've seen them in action in recent weeks.

We can follow the bipartisan efforts of Montana, where 18 Republicans joined Democrats to pass a disclosure law requiring all dark-money political groups to disclose their donors if they spend money in Montana state elections.

We can follow the bipartisan efforts of Maryland, led by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, who recently signed a law to fund the state's public financing system to help more candidates say no to the big-money checks. Or any of the numerous bipartisan-supported reforms to keep our republic in the hands of the people throughout the country — including in Maine, New Hampshire, Missouri and many more.

On the national level, we can ask our members of Congress to support common-sense legislation such as the Government By the People Act, which would set up a small donor matching system for federal candidates.

We can encourage the president to sign an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending so that we know our hard-earned tax dollars are going to the companies that deserve it over the ones who paid for it.

These solutions are what Hughes wanted to address in coming to Washington.

Instead, the press has been talking about his actions as a threat to national security. Why are we more concerned about the security threat of this 61-year-old postal worker with a flying bicycle than we are about the threat posed every day by billionaire special interests polluting our airwaves with lies?

The real national security threat is how lobbyists, special interest groups and wealthy donors are trying to turn America into their own personal customer-service agency.

Hughes was just trying to point out to cynical members of the public that not only is it not too late for us to stand up for our democracy, there are steps and solutions we can take to get us to there.

While many of us know what happens at the end of Mr. Smith, Mr. Hughes' story is far from over. He faces up to nine and a half years in prison and is currently restricted by electronic monitoring as his case develops. And it will take nothing less than a national movement to write the final chapter: getting big money out of politics. As the movement continues to grow across the country, in red states and in blue states, we need to keep promoting these solutions to encourage others to stand up. Each additional voice gets us one step closer to stemming the tide.

Plutocracy is the price our cynicism will pay us if we refuse to hold our politicians accountable to the voters.

— Donna Brazile is a Democratic strategist, commentator for CNN and ABC News, and a former Hill staffer. She wrote this for CQ-Roll Call.