It was hard to hear as Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg met with constituents last week in a Sacramento coffeehouse. Cups clattered. People in the back talked over each other. Periodically the baristas would unleash the jet-engine-like roar of an industrial coffee grinder. The blond woman at the bar almost had to holler.
“Senator, it appears you’re presiding over the most corrupt Legislature in California history – how does that make you feel?” she called out.
Steinberg slumped. Sometimes there are even more than a thousand words in a picture. He’d spent most of the past hour and a half talking to this crowd about the Senate’s recent scandals, all of which arise in some way from the voice of big money.
Already he had stipulated the need to rise above filthy lucre. Already he had noted that the laws limit his options to enforce that.
Already he had pointed out that his disgraced colleagues weren’t the first to be tempted by cash offers, or summer jobs for their kids, or opportunities to clear big campaign debts, or sketchy loopholes that might let them move to nicer blocks than the ones in their cruddy districts.
And already he had spelled out how money has talked its way into the system. How voters have been repeatedly persuaded that publicly financed campaigns are too expensive. How the U.S. Supreme Court has systematically gutted limits on campaign donations.
Already he had explained. But how to explain it? Time was short and so many were straining to get his attention.
The housing advocate in the back, the charter school guy in the raincoat, the caretaker with the elder-care issue, the veteran with the military museum, the woman with the question about the impact of the initiative on medical malpractice – this was their one free chance to be heard. Hands were waving.
“How do I feel about it?” Steinberg cried, throwing his own hands up. “I feel terrible!”
It does feel terrible, this sense that we’ve been tricked into letting money shout down everything else in our political system, that we’ve let it work us all into a corner where we can’t hear our own cries for help.
Money supposedly equals free speech in this country – that’s what the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court keeps insisting. But any un-moneyed person who has ever tried to be heard by an elected official knows that money isn’t speech. Money is amplification. It’s not the voice. It’s the megaphone.
In politics as in life, money turns up the volume. Whether the broadcast is good or bad, money couldn’t care less. Money can flood the airwaves with one person’s wise and life-altering opinion or make a handful of crackpots look like the civil-rights movement. Money can make the nice corporate guy or union rep into such a seemingly old buddy that you can’t hear any voice but theirs, even when what it wants is bad for the public.
And money can drown out the consciences of ordinary people who might otherwise never have to know how they’d react if someone elected them to office and then stuck a big wad of bills under their noses. Or what they’d do if they were the ones with that kind of power. There are politicians in this state who have spent years kissing up to billionaires, hoping for consulting gigs when they term out of office. And there are billionaires who will never hire them, but make demands just to watch them grovel. Deep down, I can’t believe anyone involved is proud of it.
Is there really no way we can govern ourselves without this much cash amplification? Is politics unplugged really such a radical stretch?
The natural urge, of course, is to throw up our hands and feel terrible about the human beings we elect to positions of power, but we aren’t entirely devoid of options. We could curb pay-to-play by banning fundraising while the Legislature is in session. We could shine a light by insisting on real-time, online reporting of campaign donations. We could come up with some hard-core reforms and then do what Californians do – put them on the ballot. Or we could lengthen the term limits that force elected officials into permanent campaign mode and give rich interest groups so much power over them.
Most of all, though, we could look for a way back to that place where the First Amendment meant that every voice had an equal right to an equal hearing – the place where the rest of us weren’t supposed to stand around waving our arms while money called the tune at maximum volume.
As he worked his way out the coffeehouse door, Steinberg said he had asked his staff to take another look at ways to make campaigns publicly funded – a pilot project, maybe, just for the Senate. It was noisy, but the people around him, nodding, seemed to have no trouble at all hearing him.
Shawn Hubler is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and columnist.