Metro, Top Story, Politics

Meet Lawrence Lessig: The Harvard Professor Running For President

He wants to be president for a week—and then resign.

For the past two years, Lawrence Lessig has led hundreds of people in a 185-mile walk across the state of New Hampshire in the middle of January.

Lessig and hundreds of members of the New Hampshire Rebellion—a cross-partisan group dedicated to getting big money out of politics—have twice walked for nearly two weeks through snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures to raise awareness about corruption in politics.

The event began in 2014 to continue the work of New Hampshire-native Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who walked across the country when she was 88 years old with a sign across her chest advocating for campaign finance reform.

Lessig views his message in step with hers.

Speaking in front of a crowd of over 4,000 people at the New Hampshire Democratic Convention last Saturday, the Harvard Law professor pointed to his walks across the state as motivation to enter the 2016 presidential race.

“I was able to emphasize the way in which that experience convinced me that this experience is an issue Republicans, Democrats, and Americans alike care about,” Lessig said in an interview with The Heights on Sunday.

Presidential candidates do not typically promise to vacate the White House once they get in office, but Lessig said that is exactly what he will do as he seeks the 2016 Democratic nomination. If elected, the quirky Harvard professor explained he would only serve as president as long as it takes to pass a series of electoral reforms he is promoting through Congress. He will then immediately resign and let his vice president take over office.

“They [Clinton and Sanders] will not bring the American people around to the resolution that we need to change the way campaigns are funded”

His second in command has yet to be named, though his website features a vice president voting poll featuring the likes of Jon Stewart, Sheryl Sandberg, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“What I’m trying to do is something a little different than the standard candidate,” Lessig said. “I’m trying to get people to reflect on the fact that all of the issues they are reacting to are things we can’t get until we deal with this more fundamental issue of fixing our democracy first.”

Lessig announced his candidacy earlier this month after vowing to run if he could raise $1 million in a crowdfunding campaign by Labor Day. He has taken a leave of absence from his tenured position at Harvard Law School to focus on his campaign.

Lessig passionately considers the current Congressional campaign financing system the source of all major political problems, including climate change, student loan debt, and an increasing budget deficit.

His unconventional campaign is based on running as what he calls a “referendum president,” focused on a single mission: passing a package of laws to change the nation’s political system and ethics laws. His Citizens Equality Act of 2017 is a bill designed to expand voter access, end political gerrymandering, and institute campaign finance reform.

“We don’t have a Congress that can solve the major problems because of the corrupting influence of money inside our political system,” Lessig said. “We have to fix that problem first, then we can get back to solving all of the other problems that America needs to solve.”

The concept of a referendum president is new, and Lessig explained that if elected, fixing the political system is his only priority. His plan would renovate the election system in several ways. He is calling for automatic voter registration, and shifting Election Day to a current national holiday or a weekend day to encourage more voter participation. Lessig also wants to give voters a voucher worth $50 to contribute money to congressional campaigns and eventually create citizen-funded elections.

Lessig is not the only candidate who is focused on fixing the political system. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is surging in early polls in New Hampshire, has made campaign finance reform a part of his bid for the Democratic nomination. Sanders is relying on small donors to fund his campaign—his average donation is $31.30. Lessig explained that he likes that Sanders is raising the issue of going after big banks who are large contributors to political campaigns, but he faults Sanders for not making it the top priority of his campaign.

“Bernie has talked about the way campaigns are funded, but now he’s back to talking about what is going to overturn Citizens United,” Lessig said. “That’s an incomplete solution.”

Lessig also launched his campaign the same week that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton released a two-page document addressing unlimited money in American elections. Lessig explained that Clinton and Sanders have slowly come around to checking off the right boxes, but both candidates are not doing enough to recognize that this should be a “day one” issue that must be accomplished before moving onto anything else.

“So they [Clinton and Sanders] are not actually pushing for the kinds of changes that will be enough,” Lessig said. “Even if they were, my point is that they would come to office with this being one of 10 things. That will not solve the problem.”

While the two White House hopefuls may not agree on much, Lessig also said that Donald Trump’s willingness to speak out on campaign finance reform has helped the overall cause.

“I’m happy he has raised the issue of the corrupting influence of money in politics—but that’s about it,” Lessig said.

This is not the first time Lessig has undertaken an unconventional approach to change the election system. Last year, Lessig developed a following in liberal circles when he launched the Mayday PAC, which spent more than $10 million to help candidates from both parties who supported lessening the impact of wealthy donors in elections. Almost every candidate that his group backed lost.

Looking to the future, Lessig is focused on Oct. 13: the date of the first Democratic debate. He will have to secure at least 1 percent of the national vote in order to make it to the big stage. Unlike the other five Democratic candidates who are frequently polled along with Vice President Joe Biden, who is still contemplating entering the race, Lessig has only been included in one poll so far that found 1 percent of likely Democratic voters supported the Harvard professor. He is still optimistic about his chances, but knows that he has work to do in order to become a household name.

Regardless of the outcome, Lessig will be back in New Hampshire next January to walk across the state for a third time—hoping to get more people questioning the “corruption” in politics merely a few weeks before the first 2016 Democratic primary election.

“If we can do that in a credible way, we can set up the rest of the campaign to take off and be really powerful,” he said.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

September 23, 2015

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