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How One State Senate Just Screwed the Whole Nation

What happened in Albany last week is more than just another case of jaw-dropping political dysfunction—it has major implications for national anti-corruption efforts.

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Observing New York state politics is like watching felons run a parole board. Last week, senate leadership killed a bill that would have cleaned up state government and created citizen-funded elections. It was a huge opportunity to stem corruption that has wracked the state. Thirty-two state officials have been in  deep trouble over the last few years, including (ironically) four former Senate majority or minority leaders. A 2012  study gave New York a D grade, and ranked it 36th nationally in government integrity.

But this is more than just another case of jaw-dropping political dysfunction. What happened in Albany last week has major implications for national anti-corruption efforts that are central to making progress on the issues that you care about most, yet keep losing. Health care, climate change, education, financial oversight, military spending... the list goes on.

Every American who cares one whit about future generations should be obsessed with money in politics corruption. And for those of us who are, all eyes were on Albany. The Fair Elections Act was backed by serious funders and a skillful organizing campaign. But it was not enough: the latest in a long string of disappointments for public interest advocates. This one however should serve as a blaring wake up call for reformers that it is time to change the play.

The Albany effort had all of the ingredients of a winning campaign. In January, Governor Cuomo opened the legislative session with public financing as one of his top priorities. It received endorsements from celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Jason Alexander as well as the editorial boards of the New York Times and several other papers across New York. The state assembly easily passed the measure in May, but in the end, the momentum for change was stopped cold.

How could this happen? The hard lesson to take from Albany is that a deliberate legislative effort that works within a corrupt system -- in the current political environment -- cannot overcome the power of that corruption. The only way to get foxes (politicians) to put a lock on the henhouse (campaign money) is to change the political environment, and force politicians in the only place that works: the ballot box. And to do that, we must break with old habits, and forge a new strategy that:

1) Enlists grassroots conservatives and moderates into a movement historically associated with the left. Albany was no exception, yet polls show Americans of all ideologies support reform, and we now see that progressives cannot do it alone.

2) Builds a grassroots movement that is far bigger than the issue has ever seen. That means using more aggressive marketing and organizing tactics, and winning the active support of myriad issue advocates who are continually losing to moneyed interests. We must give them attractive and accessible entry points to the movement, and show them a path to victory.

3) Moves away from incremental policy proposals. We need big, visionary demands that can both inspire a movement and credibly claim to end quid pro quo politics. In this big tent there is room for both legislative proposals as well as amendments to the U.S. Constitution (a long shot, but a worthy organizing tool). It is notable that NYPIRG, League of Women Voters and Citizens Union  did not actively support the Fair Elections Act in Albany because it was not comprehensive enough. I think they got caught up letting perfect be the enemy of the good, but it is a reminder that we must rally behind more comprehensive proposals.

4) Stops talking about campaign reform, democracy and public funding, and start talking about corruption. People may like democracy, but they're fired up about corruption.