I was saddened to learn this afternoon that Bob Edgar, former Pennsylvania congressman and president of Common Cause, passed away this week. He was 69 years old.
In his early years Edgar was a prime example of how much one can accomplish when they set aside partisanship and really work for something. He came virtually out of nowhere to be elected to Congress in 1974 in a district that traditionally voted heavily in the other direction. He was a brilliant reformer in the fight for government transparency, equality and veterans' rights.
Edgar ran for one of Pennsylvania's seats in the Senate in 1986, suffered a double-digit loss to Arlen Specter and moved onto the next stage of his life. He spent ten years as president of the Claremont School of Theology, then served for some time as the general secretary of the National Council of Churches before being hired as president of Common Cause. That's where we met, when I worked for the organization in 2007 and 2008.
Bob and I were both good fits for Common Cause because we're both passionate about making government more responsive to the people. While with the organization I spent better than a year working primarily on getting big money out of politics, an issue I still strongly believe in. In the end, though, when CC and I parted ways it was at least partially in response to a difference of opinion with the philosophy Bill Moyers outlined in his eulogy for Edgar:
One day, over coffee, we talked about how, if the predators of democracy are going to use brass knuckles to pulverize us, we have to fight back with sharp elbows.
There's more to it than this, of course, but a big part of fighting fire with fire as stated above means things like gathering large donations for a campaign seeking to limit the power of large donations to candidates. I worked hard during my time with CC and accomplished some things I'm pretty proud of, but struggled at times to convince large campaign donors to write me big checks to use to attempt to reduce the power of their greatest weapon. I'm eternally grateful to the handful of people who do see the problem and were willing to help fight it, but you can probably imagine how frequently that actually happened.
On the grander scale, the ongoing financial arms race across the board in politics has made politicians more reliant on large donations than ever before. The ability to raise ridiculously large sums of money is basically a prerequisite to running for many higher offices and fundraising is a year-round practice for anyone who hopes to run again. It's no surprise, then, that many/most of our elected officials are sympathetic to issues tied to large donors. This issue, thankfully, has not spread to our local offices. I was able to successfully run for alderman with slightly more than $1000 and a lot of my own time. It may not always be that way, though.
Furthermore, fighting dirty in response to a dirty fighter frequently leads to all of us getting dragged into the mud. One of the biggest issues facing American politics is the belief that both sides are full of stupid, corrupt, hypocritical liars...a perception that both sides have spent decades cultivating.
What we desperately need from our elected officials and organizations isn't a new weapon to use against the other side. It's a generation of leaders who are more interested in making the world a better place than holding down the opposition. We need a generation of leaders that will respond to dirty tactics not by retaliating, but by rising above it.
I'm sure Bob wasn't the first person to do this, but on multiple occasions I saw him ask a room full of potential activists to repeat after him in the following refrain:
We are...(WE ARE)
The leaders...(THE LEADERS)
We've been waiting for. (WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR.)
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have much more work to do.