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Home / Articles / Views / Danish Plan /  The marketplace of ideas
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Thursday, February 11,2010

The marketplace of ideas

By Paul Danish

Whatever else it did, the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission — that’s the campaign finance case — has prompted a lot of Boulder lefties to take pen in hand and hyperventilate that the American republic, and possibly civilization as we know it, are about to be swept away by a tidal wave of corporate money.

Well, for years Boulder lefties have been conflating speaking truth to power with talking trash to corporate America, so maybe it’s not surprising that some of them are hearing footsteps now that corporate America has been un-muzzled. But the death of democracy? Give me a break!

So corporate America is about to enter the political arena. As if it hasn’t been there already. Does the phrase “political action committee” mean anything to you?

Beating corporate money may not be a walk in the park, but it isn’t harder than anything else in politics. If I can do it, weenies, you can.

And make no mistake, I’ve done it.

Or more accurately, the citizen campaign I led did it.

Ever hear of a Boulder city ordinance commonly called the Danish Plan? I wrote it and led the campaign that petitioned it onto the ballot and then got it passed by a vote of the people in the 1976 election — despite the fact that virtually the entire Boulder business community was against it, and notwithstanding the shit storm of money business threw at it.

So corporate America is about to enter the political arena. As if it hasn’t been there already. 

When we turned in our petitions in mid- September, the business community went nuts. Within days, four separate political committees sprang up to fight the Slow Growth Ordinance (its real name).

The Chamber of Commerce had one. So did the Board of Realtors. And the local architects, planners and builders.

One local realtor even went rogue and bought his own ads.

And the money flowed like wine. In six weeks, business raised and spent more than $15,000, which is like $60,000 or $70,000 today, to kill the ordinance. In those days, full-page ads in the Boulder Camera could be had for well under $1,000, and the papers brimmed with anti-Slow Growth ads that fall. There were organized letterwriting campaigns, too. Both the Camera and the usually environmentally friendly Town & Country Review wrote editorials opposing it.

But we knew it was going to be that way, and we were ready.

Months before we started circulating petitions, we started putting out press releases, writing letters to the editor and giving speeches explaining in detail what was in the ordinance and why it was needed. We didn’t get a flood of earned media out of this, but we got enough that the business PACs couldn’t define us to their liking (although God knows they tried).

We also raised money for a media campaign of our own. Not nearly as much as the business groups did — we were outspent about 4 to 1 — but we had enough to keep the opposition from monopolizing the conversation.

Early on, we printed 30,000 pamphlets explaining the ordinance and answering frequently asked questions about it. They weren’t slick; they were printed on newsprint. And they were content-heavy. They stood out in contrast to the slick, agency-produced ads of the opposition. And we hand-delivered one to every house in Boulder.

More than 100 people volunteered to leaflet precincts for slow growth. We spent a lot of time on the phone encouraging the troops and keeping them in the loop.

What ad money we had we conserved until the last 10 days before the election. That’s usually when undecided voters start paying attention.

And that was when we used the other side’s money and arguments against them.

The Sunday before Election Day we ran a full-page ad that was illustrated with eight two-by-three-inch pictures of the anti-growth control ads that had been flooding the town.

The headline on that ad read, “Someone is spending a hell of a lot of money to kill growth control in Boulder. Guess who.”

The text began (I’m quoting from memory here), “And by the time they are done, a small group of developers, builders and realtors will have spent $15,000 trying to convince voters thatgrowth control is a bad idea. Here’s the other side.”

The rest of the ad made the case for growth control and rebutted their arguments against it.

It’s important to recognize what was going on here. We raised the issue of money in politics and turned it against the opposition, but — and this is important — we didn’t make money the central issue. We spent most of the ad attacking the content of their arguments, not the content of their wallets.

On Election Day, more than 35,000 Boulderites voted on the Slow Growth Ordinance, a municipal election turnout record that stood for 30 years. It won by 552 votes.

Like I said, it wasn’t a walk in the park. But we won. The big bucks lost.

Money is a formidable thing in politics, but it is not the only thing.

I’ve never had much use for the campaign finance reform issue, because in the end it’s all about process, not substance.

Worse, my experience has been the candidates who make it an issue almost always do so because they’re too chicken or too lazy put their real beliefs out there and to defend them in public. And so they moralistically make an argument that boils down to shutting up their opponents in the name of establishing a level playing field. That’s real corruption. And it may explain why they usually lose.

Well, the playing field is almost never level in politics. Politics is about life, and life, as John Kennedy famously observed, is unfair. Get over it.

The real leveler in politics is the First Amendment. If you feel you have to mess with it in order to play the game, you shouldn’t be in the game in the first place.

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