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Candidates should pledge to keep Outside mega-money from fixing the race

Sam Dunham
OPINION: Alaskans do have a way to force big money and out-of-state interest groups out of their elections: The People's Pledge. Every candidate should take it. Aaron Jansen illustration

There should be less money in politics.

That is a well-worn phrase that everybody seems to agree upon. Everybody but those who benefit, that is.

In the past few years, a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have let loose the floodgates of election spending. Candidates can now receive almost unlimited campaign contributions from anywhere in the country, from super PACs, nonprofits and corporations, or just plain billionaires with agendas.

Alaska has been hit by the effects of this new political order in the current U.S. Senate race between Mark Begich and his presumptive Republican opponent. The airwaves are awash in millions of dollars of ads paid for by outside interests.

I know I'm not the only Alaskan sick to my stomach and fearful of the influence non-Alaskans are trying, and succeeding, to wield over my home.

While Congress haggles over a potential constitutional solution, there is something we can do right here, and right now. That is to take seriously the Alaska Agreement proposal made by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, and urge the candidates to negotiate and agree to stop outside money now. Similar agreements have worked before and are working now.

The first such agreement, called the People's Pledge, was between the U.S. Senate candidates in Massachusetts in 2012. The candidates agreed to publicly reject all spending by outside groups, in other words any group outside of the competing candidates and parties including super PACs, corporations, labor unions, trade groups, etc. If an entity ran an ad in spite of the agreement, the benefiting candidate paid a penalty of half of the cost of the ad to a charity of their opponent's choosing, out of their own campaign coffers. The pledge worked. It decreased outside spending in the race by 93 percent, compared to other competitive Senate races.

What might seem like an idealistic pipe dream not only worked then, but it’s catching on now. In addition to the U.S. Senate race that spawned it, 10 candidates have signed or proposed the agreements like the People’s Pledge around the country, from New England to the Deep South, to right here in Alaska. Good-government groups like Public Citizen are promoting the idea as way to combat corruption. Such agreements drastically reduce the amount of third-party spending, while increasing the number of small, personal donations. But it works only if every candidate in a race agrees to it.

The benefits are simple and clear:

• Candidates can control their own messages, since they control the money being spent by their campaigns;
• Candidates are freer to focus on the issues that matter most to their constituents;
• Voters get a better understanding of the positions and priorities of candidates;
• Elected officials are less beholden to outside interests with national agendas that have little to do with Alaska.

Every candidate should agree to a People's Pledge, and until they do, every Alaskan voter should be encouraging, if not outright harassing them, to do so. Right now, as soon as you finish reading this commentary, please, email all the candidates, call their campaign offices, and ask when they are going to sit down with their opponents and come to an agreement to block Outside money. Tell them you are tired of faceless organizations using them as poster children to advance their own private causes. Tell the candidates you want to know what they think about Alaska issues, but you can't hear them above the cacophony of special-interest advertising. Learn more and find candidate contact information at www.peoplespledge2014.org.

The People's Pledge is not perfect. It will not fix everything wrong with our electoral system. But it is a clear and strong step in the right direction – for Alaska, and for America.

Sam Dunham has lived in Alaska for 30 years and proudly registered non-partisan. He is a certified teacher, husband, father, homeowner, taxpayer, and voter. Aquene Freechild of the group Public Citizen contributed to this commentary. She is co-director of the "Democracy is for people" campaign.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.