The Money Out of Politics (MOP) Voting Bloc works to transform our collective interest in getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics into power at the ballot box — to make our government more accountable to the people.
In 2004, a number of SUNY New Paltz undergraduate students from the peace, fair trade, environmental, and economic justice movements realized that the common barrier in all of our movements was the corrupting influence of big money in politics. We saw money in politics as a root cause behind the injustices we had each individually had been fighting for and came to the conclusion that more was to be gained by working together, than working on our respective causes individually. So we formed a chapter of Democracy Matters, a national organization dedicated to helping young people advocate for campaign-finance reform.
Not wanting to abandon the front lines of our respective struggles, we felt satisfied that we could continue to support the movements we came from (peace, fair trade, environmental and economic justice) by revealing how the corrupting influence of campaign contributions made politicians subservient to the industries dictating the specific policies we opposed. This, while simultaneously paving the way for the systemic reform that would make all other reforms possible. It became clear to us that the problem of money in politics was much farther reaching than we had imagined – effecting tax rates, farming practices, consumer protections, banking regulations, drug prices, the criminal justice system, racial equality, student debt; the deeper we dug, the more we found.
We were so encouraged by the fact that nearly every person we explained public financing to was supportive, we decided to take part in the annual good government lobby day. So we got all dressed up and hit the road for our capital: Albany, NY. Still believing we lived in some semblance of a democracy, we were very excited to make rational arguments to try to persuade the politicians to support this exceedingly popular and simultaneously revolutionary reform. And then reality set in as the politician from the neighboring district basically laughed in our faces, he was like: “you kids want to get money out of politics isn’t that nice, good for you, I love seeing young people involved, keep fighting!” And then proceeded to not support the legislation.
After this wake up call, it all made perfect sense to us. Of course incumbent politicians didn’t want to support legislation that willprovide adequate funding for challengers. They’re IN office because they probably CAN raise more money than the next guy. The last thing they want is a host of well-funded challengers, aka, more competitive elections. From that point onward our small group of mostly 18-23 yr olds vowed to never talk to another politician about getting money out of politics, until we had the power to unseat them.
Separately from our work with Democracy Matters, we started going door-to-door in that district building up aMoney Out of Politics Voter Bloc (MOP Bloc), a contact list of voters who said they cared deeply about MOP and wanted to know where candidates in their district stood on this issue before they voted each election. At antiwar and other political rallies, while most were busy singing, chanting and waving signs, we were systematically working our way through the crowds ensuring that everyone there had joined the MOP Bloc. But we didn’t stop there, we went to festivals, farmers markets, door-by-door, block-by-block, town-by-town, until the number of people in our MOP voter bloc was comparable to the margin of victory in the previous election. Finally, 4 years later, we were able to unseat that politician and replaced him with a candidate who supported robust campaign finance reform! (By 12 votes) Buoyed by this success we did it successfully again in 2010 in a tight state senate race in Queens with the election of state senator Tony Avella (by 500 votes) ,who unseated an incumbent that got elected the same year Richard Nixon did, and then again in 2012 with the election of Cecelia Tkacyk. (by 18 votes)
All this to say, that with little to no money, a group of kids armed with only our pragmatic idealism and clipboards were able to have a decisive impact on a NYS assembly race and 2 NYS senate races; in a state where the passage of campaign finance reform hinges on a few votes in that chamber. (Yes, causation is tricky when looking at election results, but at the very least we were one of many “but for” causes of those three upsets given the size of MOP Bloc in those districts as compared to the pro-MOP candidates’ margin of victory. As in, the pro-MOP candidates wouldn’t have won, but for, our involvement.)
Most importantly, at the end of each election cycle we were left with an asset: a huge contact list of identified money out of politics voters that could be used for further education, direct actions, call your senator campaigns and most importantly: for future state AND federal elections. If the pro-MOP candidate lost, ok, well we have a huge head start for the next election to double or triple the MOP Bloc. For example, the MOP Bloc we built for the Tkaczyk race was the product of 8 years of building the MOP Bloc “unsuccessfully” trying to unseat campaign finance reform opponent votes in that chamber. (Yes, causation is tricky when looking at election results, but at the very least we were one of many “but for” causes of those three upsets given the size of MOP Bloc in those districts as compared to the pro-MOP candidates’ margin of victory. As in, the pro-MOP candidates wouldn’t have won, but for, our involvement.)
Most importantly, at the end of each election cycle we were left with an asset: a huge contact list of identified money out of politics voters that could be used for further education, direct actions, call your senator campaigns and most importantly: for future state AND federal elections. If the pro-MOP candidate lost, ok, well we have a huge head start for the next election to double or triple the MOP Bloc. For example, the MOP Bloc we built for the Tkaczyk race was the product of 8 years of building the MOP Bloc “unsuccessfully” trying to unseat campaign finance reform opponent State Senator Bonacic. On the other hand, in districts where we won, we maintained the power to hold that politician accountable to his or her constituents via the contact lists.
While the tactic du jour would have us investing our time and energy fundraising to purchase advertisements, two things persuaded us to take a different tack. Acknowledging that media buys can be very effective in the short term, we were concerned that 2 years later we would be left with only vague impressions on the minds of voters; in the nation Gore Vidal has coined “the united states of amnesia.” Given that building up the MOP Bloc in strategic districts was as much about building a future asset as it was about influencing one particular election, we viewed the ground campaign vs air campaign resource allocation choice as a short term vs long term investment decision.
As much as we wished it not the case, we had to be honest with ourselves and face the reality: the struggle to empower the over 99% of us who aren’t being heard in the political process was going to take many years, if not decades. But rather than despair, we decided to use that honesty to create a strategic advantage: meaningful campaign finance reform was not going to pass in the short term. If it was going to pass it, we needed a movement, not just a series of temporally disparate media blitzes.
Accordingly, our center of gravity was in building a foundation of supporters, that then would get followed up via regular updates on how money and politics rears its head in current affairs, updates on developments within the organization, MOP community building outreach and opportunities for volunteering, all then culminating in an annual issue-based GOTV mobilization. While the campaign season only lasted several months in a 2 year cycle, the MOP Bloc could be built year round. Our thinking was that by putting emphasis on face-to-face voter engagement and volunteerism, we would do more to foster voters that identified with MOP for the long haul. Indeed, it has long been held in the political science community that there is no more effective means of persuasion in elections than face-to-face communications.
While this strategy sounded good in theory it came with it a host of challenges. While we were able to swing elections with relatively close margins, we typically only had the capacity to focus on one or two districts at a time. Absent full time staff, it became increasingly difficult to recruit volunteers to fulfill administrative roles at pace with our growth. Furthermore, while it seems there was an infinite pool of people that wanted to help and supported the work we were doing, most of them were struggling to feed their families, often working two or three jobs to get by. These factors lead us to start the Democracy Coffee campaign in order to raise the funds needed to grow the voting bloc, while also providing voters an easy way to exercise their democratic influence in an era where fundraising decides elections.