How did this happen? And what lessons should we learn from this victory?
Late last night, Connecticut's General Assembly became the first such body in the country to adopt a comprehensive public financing measure. There were a number of important reasons for its breakthrough passage. But in today's national political environment one stands out.
For several years, Connecticut has reeled from constant headlines about political scandal and corruption, capped by the nexus of dirty dealing that ultimately drove Governor John Rowland from office and into jail. Ugly stories of conflict of interest, political payoffs, and arrogance of power. Political underlings have turned state's evidence, leading to indictments, and then to guilty pleadings and convictions. Public official perp walks, lawmakers behind bars - the political news turned into Court TV.
Now, a fed-up public, constant grassroots pressure, steady coalition-building and skillful organizing have produced in real change: There's a reform victory that will allow good people to run for office competitively relying on small contributors and without courting wealthy donors. It will cut the campaign finance cord (some would say leash) between the big lobbying combines and the legislators they do business with.
The same story arc is beginning in Washington, DC. Former Rep. Duke Cunningham pled guilty to $2.4 million in bribes, and resigned in disgrace. Former Majority Leader Tom DeLay has been indicted for criminal money laundering and conspiracy. His former spokesman, Michael Scanlon, has pled guilty to bribing Rep. Bob Ney and has implicated already indicted uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Rep. William Jefferson has had his home raided by the FBI in connection to another bribery scandal.
Exactly where these stories go, nobody knows for sure. But the reality is, these are the stories that normally unfold relatively slowly. The Washington Post estimated that 40 prosecutors and investigators are looking into the relationships between Abramoff, Scanlon, and at least six members of Congress. Subpoenas will lead to grand jury appearances. Squeezed witnesses will generate new rounds of allegations. Testimony under oath will result in new indictments. Indictments lead to pre-trial hearings accompanied by bombastic claims of innocence by highly-priced and well-coifed criminal defense attorneys. And so on.
That's a pretty clear forecast for a reform-ripe political climate in 2006 and, most likely, the next couple of years as well. So what can reform-minded folk do? A few suggestions:
* Lay bold solutions on the table -they're more likely to mobilize the public and make a real difference when enacted.
* Make public financing programs that increase the power of ordinary voters part of the policy debate now, even if passage isn't right around the corner.
* Slice the financial links between lobbyists and lawmakers, starting with the campaign check-writing and bundling of client checks.
* Take these issues into the middle of the election cycles in 2006 and 2008. Reform groups have been notoriously shy about inserting themselves into the political to-and-froing during campaign season, but it is instructive that Connecticut reformers injected pay-to-play corruption into political campaigns and came away with increased clout for the long legislative battle that resulted in last night's victory.
* Finally, take strategic victories where they can be found - at the state and municipal level - that make meaningful changes in politics and give hope for bigger things to come.