08/14/97 - 12:22 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Campaign finance crusaders try to seize the moment

WASHINGTON - You can't be impatient if you want to change anything around here. It's often best not to be too timid or practical, either.

Take Charles Lewis, a self-described "person who perseveres when it's completely stupid." Decades ago that meant trying out to be a high school linebacker even though he had a broken nose and weighed 20 pounds less than his two rivals.

Those are about the same odds now facing a quartet that consists of Lewis and three equally persistent allies - Ann McBride, Kent Cooper and Ellen Miller. Each leads a group dedicated to reforming the campaign-money system.

This moment, as the Senate investigates troubling 1996 fund-raising, is one they have yearned for since Watergate.

The public is not exactly in a lather about campaign-finance reform. But these advocates say it's a huge mistake to ignore the fact that corporations, unions and rich people are sinking tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece into candidates, causes and political parties.

"I really believe this is the fundamental issue facing the country," says McBride, 53, the president of Common Cause. "Money has a tremendous influence on basic real-life issues. And money is drowning out our voices."

McBride and Miller, 51, executive director of Public Campaign, are lobbying for donation limits and other alternatives to the current rules governing campaign fund-raising and spending.

The Center for Responsive Politics, led by Cooper, 51, churns out facts and analysis about how money influences politics. The Center for Public Integrity, founded and directed by Lewis, 43, digs up information normally not public, such as the Lincoln bedroom guest list.

Not everyone considers these four players guardians of democracy. Reform opponents range from conservative Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to labor unions, businesses, individuals and interest groups.

They're against reform plans that cut back or ban certain contributions to candidates and parties. They're also against mandatory spending limits. They contend, and the Supreme Court agrees, that such spending limits would violate their right to free speech - including the right to saturate the air waves with political messages designed to promote or attack candidates or policies.

There's no constitutional problem with voluntary spending limits or mandatory contribution limits; there's just tremendous resistance from the politicians who benefit from the current system.

Still, there's a growing consensus that "soft money" is a problem. That's the term for money given to parties, not to individual candidates. Unlike donations to candidates, soft money is unlimited and unregulated. It is not supposed to be used for or against specific candidates, but that's a distinction that often evaporates in a campaign.

How big are the donations? Cooper's Web site recently headlined $1 million from Richard DeVos, the founder of Amway, to the Republican Party.

At the very least, advocates hope Congress passes a soft-money ban as a result of the Senate hearings, which ran most of July and are set to resume next month. Beyond that, their prescriptions vary. Cooper, for instance, says lawmakers shouldn't be allowed to take money from interests regulated by their committees.

The most far-reaching proposal, from Miller and her group, would allow candidates who reject private contributions to dip into a taxpayer-financed campaign fund instead. "People have gotten their expectations whittled down," Miller says. "I want to raise that bar."

Is the cause hopeless, as so many say? Well, Lewis did make the football team back in high school.

The four crusaders who, despite the odds, are convinced that congressional votes coming up this fall are the best shot at campaign-finance reform in 23 years:

Ann McBride, Common Cause

Job: President of Common Cause, a "citizens lobby" founded 27 years ago to fight secrecy and big-money influence in politics. Web site: www.commoncause.org.

First political exposure: Father was a Republican state committee chairman, mother a national committeewoman.

First political job: Volunteered at Common Cause in 1972 to work for the Equal Rights Amendment. Six months later she was on the payroll.

Defining moment: "The night I was in the gallery of the House. We'd been working on a resolution to stop funding for the war in Vietnam. It was a tie vote and the speaker (Carl Albert) broke the tie. For the first time Congress went on record to end the war. Every vote mattered. All the work we did mattered."

What everyone should read: Czech President Vaclav Havel's first inaugural address for "a sense of what democracy is all about by someone who had to fight for it."

What she hopes Senate hearings will achieve: "An impetus in Congress for campaign-finance reform. After the most corrupt election since Watergate and millions of dollars correctly being spent on the hearings, it's going to be very difficult for people to go home and say, 'We haven't done anything.' "

Charles Lewis, Center for Public Integrity

Job: Executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, founded in 1990 to investigate and publicize ethics and public service issues. Web site: www.publicintegrity.org.

First political exposure: Volunteered in the 1972 re-election campaign of Delaware Gov. Russell Peterson, a Republican; then had Watergate-era internship with Sen. William Roth, R-Del.

First paying career: Producer of investigative reports at ABC and at CBS's 60 Minutes.

Defining moment: Oct. 16, 1988, the day he left TV to start the center he now heads. "I was a producer for Mike Wallace. And I quit. Everybody thought I was having a breakdown."

What everyone should read: The Best Congress Money Can Buy, by Phil Stern. The 1980s book is "still maddening to read. Everything he wrote about then is worse today."

What he hopes Senate hearings will achieve: "I hope the Senate committee can get to the bottom of this entire mess on both sides of the aisle. If people understand they're getting screwed, maybe they'll start to care."

Kent Cooper, Center for Responsive Politics

Job: Executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, founded in 1983 to spotlight and analyze the role of money in politics. Web site: www.crp.org.

First political exposure: Four years as a college volunteer in the office of Rep. Richard Ottinger, D-N.Y.

First political job: Hired by a House clerk in 1972 to help organize financial reports that candidates had to file under a new law.

Defining moment: Quitting that job in 1974. "The data wasn't getting out." He and a partner rented a room, consolidated copies of all the reports then being filed at three government locations and opened their doors to the media. "The press was just voracious. There were stories every single day." The new Federal Election Commission recruited Cooper and his operation in 1975. He left in January, 22 years later.

What everyone should read: The center's Web site, which lists campaign contributions, contains analysis of spending by various interests and offers disclosure reports filed by lobbyists and politicians. "People should just ask the question, where does my representative get the money? If they're not bothered, fine. If they are, let them speak up."

What he hopes Senate hearings will achieve: "It is clear there's a problem with soft money. Fact-finding is going to show up the extent of the problem."

Ellen Miller, Public Campaign

Job: Executive director of Public Campaign, founded this year to promote proposals to give free TV time and taxpayer funding to state and federal candidates who pass up private contributions. Web site: www.publicampaign.org.

First political exposure: Envelope stuffer in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign.

Best political education: Seven years as a House and Senate aide.

Longest political job: Executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics from 1984 to 1996.

Defining moment: The day she got an e-mail from a friend with a quote-of-the-day across the bottom: "If we always do what we've always done, then we'll always get what we've got." Miller realized it was time to stop documenting the problem and begin pushing for a solution.

What everyone should read: Who Will Tell the People? The Betrayal of American Democracy, by William Greider. "The subtitle is important. This isn't a good-government fix. This is about restoring democracy."

What she hopes Senate hearings will achieve: "I hope that they paint a broad picture of the dysfunctional campaign finance system. I want to see a core focus on how candidates finance their campaigns - the day-to-day corruption that is legal - and I hope that leads to citizen activism. We know lawmakers will not change this system if we ask them nicely. They have to have no choice."

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