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Turn Back Corporate Democracy

This column is adapted from a speech Sunday by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) to the Shadow Convention in Los Angeles.

August 15, 2000

These conventions are examples and symbols of a broader problem. We have devolved from a representative democracy to a corporate democracy in this country. This is not a system of "one person, one vote," or "one delegate, one vote," but a system of "$1 million, one million votes."

It is a system of legalized bribery and extortion. And to be sure, this is true of both the Democratic and Republican conventions. I know that one senator at the Republican National Convention apparently raised between $600,000 and $700,000 just during that one week at seven different fund-raisers. A former Republican Party chairman said in an interview that the political parties rely on this captive audience of donors. He said, "You have most of your die-hard supporters in one place, and it's a very critical source of money for both parties." He as much as admitted that the reason the party conventions drag on for so long is simply to help the politicians extract money from wealthy donors.

Those descriptions of the Republican convention do not give me any comfort . . . in saying, "We are not as bad as they are." Why? Because I'm a Democrat and this is my party. The Democratic Party is supposed to be the party of the people. The party of Jefferson, the party of Jackson, not the party of the Big Money interests.

So what do we see when we come here to L.A.? Corporate names emblazoned in gigantic letters across the very building where the nominee will be chosen. Corporate-sponsored parties, corporate-sponsored concerts, corporate-sponsored golf tournaments, corporate-sponsored wine-tastings, corporate-sponsored yacht cruises, corporate-sponsored shopping excursions, and of course, in between, the corporate-sponsored breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

In 1996, I was a senator, so I was automatically a delegate. I came to support President Clinton and Vice President Gore, but the first thing I noticed was the corporate influence over these conventions. I went and got my credentials, and I looked down and saw this: a little piece of string that was holding my first credential, and it said all over it "United Airlines." Couldn't we afford a little twine or string with the public money that goes to the Democratic convention?

Four years later, it's much worse. What is going on now at this convention down the street is a big difference between the haves and the have-nots of the convention.

I'm sorry to say it, but the big story at the Democratic convention is really influence-buying and pedaling.

Soft money is a legal version of what corporations are prohibited by American law from doing overseas.

The story is not whether to have a fund-raiser at the Playboy Mansion, but the obscenity of unlimited special interest soft money contributions. The story is not whether the president is upstaging the vice president by holding fund-raisers in L.A. this week; it's the staggering size of the contributions required to get into the darn things. That's the story; that's the issue.

The story is not the elaborate security arrangements to protect the convention participants at the fund-raisers, it's that people feel so shut out of the process that they feel they must take to the streets.

Why, instead of evoking memories of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1932 convention speech in which he said, "All we have to fear is fear itself," why must we commence this convention with a reception [Sunday] that includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in soft money contributions, led by Prudential, the American Council of Life Insurance and American Express?

Why instead of the excitement and passion of Eugene McCarthy's 1960 plea to "not reject this man" (with reference to Adlai Stevenson), why do we have on the very nominating night at the convention a soft money fund-raiser hosted by Bell South, US West, EchoStar Communications and UPS?

Some will say that the times are changing in the wrong way and that we can never turn it back, and maybe that's true in our brave new Corporate Democracy. But let us at least have the Democratic Party turn away from this distortion of our democracy. This is not a naive request that the convention be completely pure, pristine; I suspect no one can ever completely sever the unfortunate connection between money and politics. National conventions once again can be places where grass-roots Americans can play at least an equal role with the well-to-do and the well-connected, and be allowed to be present and participate in all activities. I simply am asking for some restraint, for some thought as to the time, place, manner and scope of fund-raising.

Therefore, I call on the Democratic Party and the DNC to unilaterally prohibit soft-money fund-raisers from our political conventions. I understand they probably won't do it this week, for this convention. They should. There's still time. But if not, announce this week that it will never be done again by the Democratic Party of this country.

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