August 3, 2020

Red + Blue = An Unlikely Pair Lobbying for a 28th Amendment

TC pals and political opposites join forces to undo the aftermath of "Citizens United"
By Craig Manning | Feb. 22, 2020

Hal Gurian and John DeSpelder have a lot in common. They’re both Traverse City locals who share a deep love for the northern Michigan area. They are both civically minded individuals who are passionate about politics. And they’re good friends who have worked together to build American Promise Grand Traverse, a local branch of the national organization that is seeking to create nationwide change in the area of political campaign finance. 

Yet, for all they share, Gurian and DeSpelder have one crucial difference: Gurian is a dyed-in-the-wool republican, while DeSpelder is a lifelong progressive democrat.

As the nation hurtles toward what could prove to be its most divisive presidential election ever, Gurian and DeSpelder acknowledge that their friendship is a bit unlikely. 

“We’re a bit of an odd couple,” DeSpelder says, which might be putting it lightly in a political environment where the long-held disagreements between the two major political parties have escalated to deep distrust and unguarded animosity. Amidst all the partisan division, though, Gurian and DeSpelder have been working together to lobby for H.J.Res. 2, a piece of pending legislation in the United States House of Representatives that would add a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment would “authorize Congress and the states to set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.”

Specifically, the amendment would preempt the Supreme Court decision known as “Citizens United,” which prohibits any laws that restrict or limit corporate entities and major unions in their ability to contribute money to political campaigns.

The goal for both Gurian and DeSpelder: Get big money out of politics and eliminate the corruption they believe big money causes. To do so, they have forged an across-the-aisle partnership that defies the expectations of the current political climate. To learn more, Northern Express sat down with Gurian and DeSpelder to talk about their backgrounds, their goals, and why a 28th amendment could help fundamentally change the game for United States politics.

Express: Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Gurian: I am a registered Republican. I lived in Maryland for over 40 years of my life, which is a blue state that discriminated against Republicans [with gerrymandering]. Right now, their gerrymandering is 7–1 Democrat-Republican; it should be 5–3. When I moved here, it was just the opposite in gerrymandering, so I got involved. I lean nonpartisan, and I like to see things fair, period. In gerrymandering, I like it to be fair to both parties. So that's how I got involved in [the anti-gerrymandering campaign] Voters Not Politicians. Through that, I met John, and for some strange reason we like each other. We don't agree on some issues, but we disagree respectfully. I believe that's how it should be. 

Money in politics, I believe, is the most corrupting force that this country has. It prevents legislation that helps the people. Rather, it helps the contributor, which is either unions or corporations.

DeSpelder: My background is similar in some ways. I don't think Hal mentioned, but he was in the private sector. He had a business that he ran for many years, and I think that made him more inclined to lean financially and fiscally conservative. I was an administrator for the Social Security Disability Insurance program, and I worked on that program for 40 years. I had a lot of responsibility for, in a sense, running a business with a lot of employees. Hal and I had that in common. But I also really had a public-sector perspective and dove deep into the problems of the people that had real disabilities and the people that maybe didn't have real disabilities but were going through the disability insurance process. We had to make decisions about who qualified and who didn't.

Hal and I met after the Trump election, and I think we both felt a need to get more involved at a root level. I think that's why we ended up today doing so much with American Promise, trying to overturn Citizens United, because we see that as one of the root causes [for the problems this country has in politics]. 

Express: You two have a surprising collaborative partnership. The two parties are extremely divided right now, to the point of hostility or even hate. Can you comment on working together across the aisle, versus what seems to be an increasingly partisan political climate?

DeSpelder: It's been tough sometimes, because there are people on both sides that haven't really liked us going to the center on things. But we're very pragmatic, and I think that's one of the things that the two of us share. We know that you can do all you want from one side of the spectrum or the other, but the kind of government we want to see is one where both sides get a take.

Gurian: Let me give you my favorite example for how money makes politics more extreme. Let's talk about education. I believe any kind of legislation for education should be about what's best for the students. But you have, on one side, teachers supported by the teachers’ unions, since teachers’ unions are paying to lobby for politicians who will support them. And then you have the DeVos Foundation on the other side, trying to increase charter schools in Michigan and cutting funding for public education to give it to charter. If you're a politician, and you’re receiving that money, the money is extreme: It leans very far in one direction or another. The money doesn't compromise. And when you can't compromise, that means you can't talk, and if you can't talk, the students get hurt. I believe both sides should be together talking about what's best for the students, but those conversations aren’t happening because of campaign finance.

Express: Walk me through Citizens United and what you two are hoping to change.

DeSpelder: Citizens United was a 2010 Supreme Court decision that found that free speech included money, so financial contributions are free speech. It also found that corporations had a right to free speech. So, what [the decisions] did was really tip the balance drastically [in favor of wealthy corporations]. The effect was that any laws that were written to regulate campaign finance could not limit the spending of corporate money or big union money. Governments could no longer write laws that limit those kinds of campaign finance expenditures. I think what both of us would like to see are laws that would reasonably regulate campaign finance. But because of Citizens United, nothing can happen until there's a constitutional amendment that would allow that legislation to be written.

Gurian: And that's a difficult road.

Express: Is there much support for a constitutional amendment within the political system right now?

DeSpelder: In the U.S. Congress, there are some bills pending — including H.J.Res. 2 and a similar bill in the Senate — that would basically authorize a constitutional amendment process to start.

Gurian: Unfortunately, there is only one Republican person supporting this. John and I recently went to Washington, D.C., and we tried to speak primarily to Republican representatives to persuade them at least to listen to our argument for why we need to change this Supreme Court ruling and have a constitutional amendment. We're hoping that our representative, Jack Bergman, will be open. We give him an A+ because he at least sat down and listened to us respectfully.

DeSpelder: This legislation has been labeled as a Democrat issue, but it's really not. It's very non-partisan. When we sat down with Jack Bergman, we were joined by Jeff Clemons, who's the founder of American Promise, as well as by a guy from New Hampshire named Jim Rubens. Rubens was a state legislator who'd run for governor of New Hampshire in 1998. He lost the race, and he attributes a great deal of the reason for his losing to the amount of money that came in from outside New Hampshire to influence the election. In a state of 1.3 million people, $13 million came into that election — and 90 percent of it was from out of state.

I think before Rubens spoke, Bergman was mostly just being pleasant and courteous [in meeting with us]. But when he heard from Rubens, who is a Libertarian that ran for governor as a Republican, I think Bergman started to see that there is another side to the money issue.

Gurian: Bergman also acknowledged that a congressman or congresswoman, especially a newly elected one, is going to spend up to 60 percent of their time trying to raise money for the next election. Can you imagine hiring someone to your staff, only for them to spend 60 percent of their time talking to their girlfriend? They would be fired. But we are electing congresspeople who spend anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of their time trying to raise money. And money is corrupting, because if I give you $5,000, I expect something. There's also a thing called dark money, and that's the scariest part, because politicians don't have to list who gave them that money. That's scary. John and I believe in transparency, and that, to me, is nonpartisan.

DeSpelder: Recently, Hal and I also went to Lansing, and we spoke to five or six Republican legislators, including Wayne Schmidt. We had very similar kinds of conversations with them. Nobody said, “Yes, we'll sign on,” but nobody ruled it out either. So I think it's on citizens to reach out to their representatives or senators and make it clear that this is something that we really need to have if we are going to move on as a country.

Express: What can regular people do if they agree that the corporate finance side of politics is a problem?

DeSpelder: We have a local group, a branch of the national American Promise group called American Promise Grand Traverse. We've had meetings for years — really since the Trump election — looking at the issues that are the most important to work on. There was a huge group of us that said, “If we do nothing else, we have to get big money out of our political process.” People are welcome to join us. We hold meetings every second and fourth Tuesday around 12:30pm. People can learn about us on Facebook [by searching “American Promise Grand Traverse”].

There are also all kinds of things people can do in terms of contacting legislators, letter writing, and just spreading the word to friends and family. People talking to friends and family is particularly helpful, because it's very different from talking to legislators. From our experience, it's very hard to find anyone of any political stripe that isn't in favor of something like this constitutional amendment.

Express: How much progress are voters likely to make just by contacting their representatives if the representative in question is indebted to corporate or union funding?

DeSpelder: That’s an excellent question. We will make more progress the more politicians hear from us. This is absolutely a grassroots effort, as are most constitutional amendments. It takes everybody, regardless of what their political beliefs are, just to make enough noise to level the playing field again.

Express: What are the next steps for you guys?

DeSpelder: We have a date set to make a presentation to the Traverse City Commission on March 16. Part of the process for getting support for a constitutional amendment is to get resolutions from each of the states. When Hal and I were in Washington, New Hampshire was celebrating being the 21st state to pass a resolution calling for this constitutional amendment. We're going around to state legislators asking that Michigan be the 21st state. Part of that process is getting the word out to citizens and to municipalities so that those state legislators can hear from us. That's why we are going to ask the Traverse City commission to pass a resolution saying we need to have a state resolution that calls for this amendment. A number of other municipalities in Michigan have already passed similar resolutions, including Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Ferndale, and Cedar Springs. Traverse City wouldn’t be the first.

Express: What does that process look like, for getting a state resolution?

DeSpelder: It could be simple. It could be that there are bill sponsors who are willing to sign on in both the House and the Senate. They realize what a great bipartisan thing this is, and they pass it. Honestly, I think we’re in for a longer battle than that. Our approach is that we devoutly want this push to be nonpartisan. We really see this issue as absolutely something that is in the best interest of our state and our country. I think that's one of the things that interests people about me and Hal. Hal is a Republican, and I'm a Democrat, but we're both saying “Look, we need to come together on a lot of things, and this is one of the root things that we need to work on first.”

Gurian: This entire issue is nonpartisan. Legislation should be passed that benefits the people, period.

DeSpelder: I like to use a visual of a butcher weighing some meat to be sold, with a thumb on the scales. That action gives the advantage to the butcher because he can make his product seem bigger than it really is. And that situation is really similar to what's going on with corporate money and big union money right now. They own the microphones. They own the megaphones. They own the airwaves. They own the lobbyists. They own the process in a way that completely tips the scales in favor of big money. And make no bones about, corporations are not people.

Express: Will making this push in a big election year help it get exposure and support, or will it be more of an uphill battle given how combative this election is likely to be?

DeSpelder: To be candid, I don't see the state passing a resolution this year. I do think that the election cycle gives us an opportunity to take the case to the people in a way that it hasn't been taken to them before. But we don't have that much time this year, and things are really out of whack [with the two parties]. We're hoping that maybe an off-year election will allow us to get the parties settled down to focus on this issue as something that they both need to work on. 

But I think politicians in both the republican and democratic parties are starting to recognize that people are not happy with government in general. Republicans maybe have the upper hand in some places, like in Michigan, but in others, it’s Democrats. People are tired of going back and forth. You look around the world at how some of the other developed nations’ election systems work, and they don't have these kinds of issues. And that’s because of campaign finance.

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