Badass Grannies, activists push to clean up government

Badass Grannies, activists push to clean up government

Badass Grannies, activists push to clean up government

President Donald Trump promised to “drain the swamp” by cracking down on Washington lobbying. This year, a group calling itself the Badass Grannies is trying to convince North Dakota voters to take matters into their own hands.

The women, backed by the national anti-corruption group RepresentUs and a glossy celebrity retinue that includes actress Jennifer Lawrence, are pushing a ballot initiative that would establish an independent ethics commission, ban foreign money from state elections and restrict lobbying gifts. They’re running up against Big Oil and other corporate interests that have flooded into the state over the past decade.

The ballot effort, known in North Dakota as Measure 1, is part of a wave of choices billed as good-government initiatives that will go before voters in the November midterms. In Colorado, Utah and other states, there’s a move to change how congressional districts are drawn. Reformers in Missouri want to reduce how much statehouse candidates can accept from individual donors. And in Florida, there’s a push to give voting rights to more than 1.4 million felons in time for the 2020 presidential election.

The national push comes as Trump has failed to deliver on many of his promises to crack down on Washington lobbying and refused to sever ties to his businesses.

At the same time, partisan processes to draw congressional districts have made many of them uncompetitive. The Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance laws, hasn’t had a full slate of members since February 2017 and is effectively neutered. And in June, the Supreme Court refused to block voting maps in two partisan gerrymandering cases. A unanimous court said the plaintiffs — Republicans in one case, Democrats in the other — failed to show “irreparable harm.”

Frustration over perceived political corruption helped boost Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016. Two years later, data from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows 13 political and campaign-reform measures on state ballots this cycle, the highest number since at least 1974, the year President Richard Nixon resigned after the Watergate political scandal.

Behind the efforts are national progressive groups, including the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, and conservatives, such as Take Back Our Republic’s John Pudner. RepresentUs advisers include Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig and the tea party’s Catherine Baer, and its model anti-corruption language was drafted with help from Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who spent 43 months in prison after conspiring to bribe public officials.

In North Dakota, Badass Grannie Dina Butcher, a former lobbyist, said the anti-corruption push started, for her, in 2015. That’s when the legislature — awash in out-of-state money following the oil boom — abruptly introduced a tax break for oil producers that was quickly passed and signed into law.

“It was rushed through,” said Butcher, 78, a Republican. “We could tell what the influences were driving policy.”

By early 2017, Butcher had teamed up with Ellen Chaffee, 74, an independent who ran on the Democratic ticket for lieutenant governor in 2012. Over weekly coffees and cookies, their bipartisan group of more than a dozen women and men — not all of them grandparents — crafted Measure 1 and got it on the ballot. Going into November, money is tight and airtime is out of reach, so the group is relying on phone banks and town halls to get their message out. On Monday, at the Fargo Theatre in the state’s most populous city, they’ll host a free screening of “Dark Money,” a documentary about corporate influence on politics.

RepresentUs plans to spend $200,000 backing Measure 1 in North Dakota, according to its political director, Dan Krassner.

“Voters are taking matters into their own hands,” Krassner said. “The hope from political reformers and the people is this will be a record year for political reform victories that will serve as a mandate for Congress.”

RepresentUs says it’s already getting results. The group claims nine wins already this year — including in Ohio, where voters in May approved the creation of a bipartisan commission to redraw political districts — and 12 in 2016.

But the North Dakota effort has drawn an unlikely coalition of opponents.

The Greater North Dakota Chamber of Commerce and the North Dakota Petroleum Council, whose members include energy giants Halliburton and ConocoPhillips, the American Civil Liberties Union and the North Dakota Catholic Conference all have announced opposition to a provision that requires anyone spending more than $200 on lobbying or government influence to disclose their funding sources.

At the federal level, individuals who spend at least 20 percent of their time trying to influence Congress or high-level government officials must publicly disclose who they’re lobbying for and what they’re being paid. But there’s no limit on what companies or groups can spend, and a lot of activity — including grass-roots organizing and media campaigns — doesn’t meet that threshold.

The ACLU says the North Dakota proposal would violate the First Amendment by restricting political advocacy. Catholic churches, fearing they might be forced to reveal their donations, are sending emails to parishioners urging them to oppose the measure.

“Churches would have to reveal the name of every member who contributed to the church, even if only a small fraction of the church's total budget was used to ‘influence government action,’” Catholic Conference executive director Christopher Dodson said in a statement.

A business alliance — North Dakotans for Sound Government — plans to spend between $250,000 and $500,000 before Election Day to defeat the measure.

“These are companies that have invested millions, billions in North Dakota; they pay thousands and millions of dollars in taxes,” said the group’s chairman, Geoff Simon. “All our donors are expecting back is good government. We’ve got it now, and we’re trying to keep it.”

North Dakota’s corporate establishment has accused the pro-Measure 1 activists of hypocrisy for relying on Hollywood money to wage political war in a red state, noting that donors to the reform cause include entertainers Christina Applegate, Steve Carell and Judd Apatow.

“Ours may be individual donors who may be on the East and West Coasts, but they don’t expect anything in return for their money,” Butcher said of the celebrities. “The money that’s being brought in to defeat our measure — they’re going to make sure there’s something they get in return.”

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