On Monday night, I had the privilege to again speak before a committee of the Cambridge (Massachusetts) City Council that is considering public financing for city council elections. Because city councilors all run citywide, the typical cost of a successful city council race is between $30,000 and $60,000, and has nearly doubled since the Massachusetts state legislature raised contribution limits from $500 to $1000. That makes it very hard to run a credible City Council race without support from wealthy donors, often real estate developers, and there’s been interest in developing public financing in Cambridge for some time.

My role (along with Pam Wilmot of Massachusetts Common Cause, and Alyson Heimer of the New Haven Democracy Fund) was to address the committee as an “expert,” pursuant to a policy order that called for the meeting. And the meeting, chaired by Councilor Nadeem Mazen, did include some “expert” discussion.

Democracy activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts gather following a city council meeting on public financing of elections.
Democracy activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts gather with Free Speech For People’s Ron Fein and the New Haven Democracy Fund’s Alyson Heimer (2nd from right) following a city council meeting on public financing of local elections. 

But the real energy came from an all-volunteer, mostly millennial group of Cantabrigians who have come together in an unofficial “independent working group” to push this issue forward. They waited patiently during the “expert” discussion, until the meeting opened for public comment and they could speak. These volunteers aren’t political or campaign finance policy professionals, or lawyers, or seasoned lobbyists. They’re not being paid by anyone as legislative advocates. They’re not affiliated with an organization.

Who are they then? They’re the future. In the middle of trying to balance job and school and everything else, they meet in their spare time (in some cases weekly), wherever they can find space, to talk about money in politics and what they, and Cambridge, can do about it. Unlike previous generations, they don’t conceive of the issue as a narrow technocratic problem of “good government,” or need to be convinced why big money in politics is bad for democracy. They feel it in their bones.

So, in their spare time, they put together a consensus policy framework, met individually with city councilors, organized a surprisingly large and passionate crowd for a city council committee meeting on a late summer evening, and built public support for what could be the first publicly financed municipal elections in Massachusetts.

And after the meeting adjourned, they weren’t done. Those who could continued a vigorous discussion of policy, messaging, and advocacy strategy at a nearby restaurant. They were still going strong when I left at 9:15pm, just as Councilor Mazen stopped by the table to say hello—and encourage them to run for city council themselves. (Of course, without public financing, most of them can’t even begin to imagine how they would raise $30,000.)

Too often, discussion of campaign finance reform focuses on Washington, D.C. and its travails. And too often, the face of the issue is a small number of experts and “players” at large organizations and in the political law practices of large law firms.

But there’s America out there. We need to see more faces like the group that came out in Cambridge on a hot August night to speak with passion at a city council committee meeting. We need to hear more voices like those who don’t think of $200 as a “small” donation, because they literally do not know a single person who can afford to give $200 or even $100 to a political campaign. We need to nurture a diverse new generation of activists who will be ready to face the challenges of the 2020s and 2030s (which will not be the problems of 2016, or even of 2002, let alone of 1974).

And while we’re doing all that, we need to make the Supreme Court get out of their way, forever.