Greenpeace's Phil Radford notes that for decades conservatives have aimed to shrink local, state, and federal governments by reforming the rules so they could install like-minded politicians, bureaucrats, and judges. Radford calls it "a 40-plus-year strategy by the Scaifes, Exxons, Coors, and Kochs of the world…to take over the country."
So last spring Brune, Cohen, Jealous, and Radford called up their friends on the left and, in June, convened the Democracy Initiative's first meeting. A handful of groups attended, and they began to focus on the triad of money in politics, voting rights, and dysfunction in the Senate.
By December, the Democracy Initiative's ranks had swelled to 30 to 35 groups, Brune says.(He expects it to be 50 by the end of the winter.) Other attendees at the December meeting included top officials from the League of Conservation Voters, Friends of the Earth, Public Campaign, the AFL-CIO, SEIU, Common Cause, Voto Latino, the Demos think tank, Piper Fund, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, People for the American Way, National People's Action, National Wildlife Federation, the Center for American Progress, the United Auto Workers, and Color of Change.(A non-editorial employee of Mother Jones also attended.)
According to a schedule of the meeting, the attendees focused on opportunities for 2013. On money in politics, Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, a pro-campaign-finance-reform advocacy group, singled out Kentucky, New York, and North Carolina as potential targets for campaign finance fights. In a recent interview, Nyhart said the Kentucky battle would likely involve trying to oust Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Public Enemy No. 1 for campaign finance reform, who faces reelection in 2014. In New York, Nyhart said, activists are pressuring state lawmakers, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, to pass a statewide public financing bill in 2013. And in North Carolina, the fight is more about countering the influence of a single powerful donor, the conservative millionaire Art Pope, whose largesse helped install a Republican governor and turn the state legislature entirely red.
On voting rights, a presentation by a Brennan Center for Justice staffer identified California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota as states where efforts to modernize the voter registration system and implement same-day registration could succeed.
But the most pressing issue right now for Democracy Initiative members is Senate rules reform. At the December meeting, attendees heard from Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) on rule changes to curb the spiraling use of filibusters to block legislation. The use of the filibuster has exploded in recent years, and Republicans now block up-or-down votes on nearly everything in the Senate, requiring Democrats to muster 60 votes to conduct even the most routine business. Liberal groups in the Democracy Initiative want to fix that, and they used the December meeting to plan a coordinated push to urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to rewrite the rules. Democrats have until January 22, when the window closes on easy rules changes, to get the reforms they want.
Other potential targets for Democracy Initiative action include Chevron, which gave $2.5 million to a super-PAC backing House Republican candidates in 2012. Google was mentioned as another target for its continued membership with the generally pro-Republican US Chamber of Commerce. And a 16-member coalition targeting the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative "bill mill" behind many voter ID, school choice, and anti-union laws, wants to use the Democracy Initiative to recruit members and so expand its efforts identifying lawmakers and corporations who are ALEC members and urging them to cut ties with the group. "We're going to put the pressure on ALEC even more" in 2013, says Greenpeace's Radford.