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Making democracy work: John Gardner and the rusty old station wagon

Picture, if you will, a time in the past where a group of people are sitting alongside the road in a rusty old station wagon. The gas gauge says empty, the tires are flat, the engine is overheated and the drive shaft is bent. Still, oblivious passengers are earnestly engaged in a lively discussion about exactly where they should go.

To any reasonable observer, it is clear that no one is going anywhere until the car is fixed.

The car is a symbol here, one used 40 years ago, as I began my own career in politics, to underscore that America’s political and governmental processes are too often broken, unresponsive and inefficient.

Opinion surveys from Washington to St. Paul have long confirmed that many citizens are convinced that their political parties are in decay, their local, state and federal governments aren’t working and their elected representatives either can’t get anything done or are heading in the wrong direction with often disastrous results. 

John Gardner creates Common Cause
Way back in 1970, 58-year-old John William Gardner, a seasoned insider of impressive private- and public-sector credentials, created Common Cause to forge a new kind of democracy in America, one that he said would be responsive to an engaged public and committed to social, economic and environmental progress. 

Two years earlier, Republican Gardner had turned down New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s offer to be appointed to an open seat in the U.S. Senate, saying he lacked the temperament to be a politician.

Gardner believed that to make democracy work, Americans must “claim it as our own … the citizen can bring our political and governmental institutions back to life, make them responsive and accountable and keep them honest. No one else can.”

“Everyone is organized but the people,” Gardner announced as he began a Common Cause campaign aimed at, he said, the “middle 80 percent” of Americans who were not liberals or conservatives, but “who want the system to work, who want to do something effective for their country.”

Under Gardner’s personal direction during the first seven years, the 4,000 core members of Common Cause, of which I was one, grew to 320,000. With a Washington, D.C.-based professional staff and annual budget of several million dollars, raised mostly from small givers, the nonpartisan Common Cause team began lobbying Congress for campaign finance changes, civil rights and higher ethical standards for public officials.

Bob Edgar’s agenda for today’s Common Cause
The more things change, it seems, the more they remain the same.

Today, Common Cause is a nationwide network of more than 400,000 members and supporters, with offices in Minnesota and 35 other states. The combined annual operating budget of Common Cause and the Common Cause Education Fund, a research arm, is $10 million.

Since 2007, former Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Edgar has been the president and CEO of Common Cause. An ordained Methodist minister, Edgar was the general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA immediately prior to joining Common Cause. He visited Minnesota in July, addressing the National Civic Forum in Minneapolis.

Edgar’s modern-day vision for Common Cause remains in the tradition of John Gardner:

• Strengthen public participation and faith in our institutions of self-government.

• Ensure that government and the political process serve the common good, rather than special interests.

• Curb the excessive influence of money on government decisions and elections and illuminate the connections between lobbying money coming in and government expenditures going out.

• Promote fair, honest and transparent elections.

• Hold government officials accountable for working within the rule of law and under high standards of ethical conduct.

• Fight for a vigorous, independent and diverse media.

• Protect the civil rights and civil liberties of all Americans.

The Minnesota chapter is evaluating the state’s era of “good government,” offering election reforms, seeking to sustain the small-giver political contribution refund program, undertaking an examination of the state’s unallotment system, and changing the manner in which the states judges are evaluated and voted upon.

Gardner, who died at the age of 89 in 2002, would want to know how the citizens in the old station wagon are moving ahead some four decades after his founding of Common Cause.

Chuck Slocum is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm. Minnesotans interested in learning more about Common Cause are encouraged to visit its website.

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