The Breakfast Crowd

The following essay written by Common Cause President & CEO Chellie Pingree appeared in the American Prospect’s August 2004 issue:

The Breakfast Crowd

By Chellie Pingree

I have two words for our next president: no excuses. You will be facing an angry country frustrated by the serious challenges we confront and hungry for a leader who will actually get things done.

I am from a small town in Maine and occasionally join in an early morning breakfast with a few long-time friends. One builds houses, one is the plumber, there is a mailman, the school principal, and a retiree who moved back after years of working out of state in a manufacturing job. They are very clear about what they want. They want to be able to afford health care, whether it is their Medicare supplemental insurance or the coverage they provide their employees. They want their sons and daughters to be able to find work in the community. They want all our children to have a good education and they care deeply about the public schools of our small town. They don’t want to be uncomfortable about the actions we take in another country; they want to be proud to fly the flag.

When the breakfast crowd talks politics, whether it is about the actions coming out of the state house or Washington, DC, they don’t want to hear any excuses like a “closely divided Congress.” They sit down to breakfast every week regardless of the different political parties they represent and see no reason why the people they elect and whose salaries they pay can’t do the same. Like many Americans, my friends don’t have faith in their elected officials’ willingness to tackle tough challenges.

Our next president’s most important task should be to restore the faith in democracy that has been eroded by the current political climate. Forget the handlers, the focus groups, and polls-just talk directly to the breakfast crowd. Talk about right and wrong, the values we all share like honesty, fairness, and shared sacrifice and hard work. Start by changing the way politicians conduct their business and restore a little faith in the way government does its job.

Do something about the influence of money on the decision-making process and fix the system by which we finance our campaigns. It doesn’t pass the straight face test anymore. Money buys access and influence. Perhaps even worse, most politicians spend the majority of their time calling wealthy people for campaign contributions or attending fundraisers, where they see only more people with money.

Fix the presidential public financing system, and while you are at it, extend it to Congress so that the parties don’t have to devote all their time looking for millionaires to run and so that the voters can get what they paid for-full time congressional representation, not people who spend the majority of their time trying to finance the next campaign. Extend the wonderful “clean elections system” in use in Maine and Arizona state races. And find a way to tap into the power of the unprecedented number of small donors who stepped forward in this campaign.

Then tackle the redistricting issue. Make the elections competitive again. Though it may not be popular with your colleagues, show your disapproval of redistricting that draws the lines so that incumbents are protected in their home districts. If you eliminate the gerrymandering of safe seats, perhaps there will be a few more members of Congress who know what it is to experience an election in which it does matter what constituents think of your votes.

Imagine if the media reported on our politicians’ actions and truly informed voters about issues. The press should be an honest politician’s best friend, the source of balanced information for the American people. If well informed, we will become strong supporters of your courageous and far-reaching legislation that is needed to solve our growing problems. And while you are fixing the media and dealing with the terrifying consolidation of its ownership, think ahead to the Internet. We can’t afford to lose control of that, too.

Return a sense of ethics to the process, don’t appoint people with something to gain, don’t make decisions based on who you owe from the last campaign. (After you fix the system of financing campaigns, you won’t have to do that anymore, anyway.).

If you have been doing your homework to rebuild faith in democracy, have the people behind you because you speak honestly to them, and propose such good ideas that Congress is embarrassed into voting for them, we will all have something to look forward to. No need for excuses.