So as headlines mount about the millions upon millions of dollars going into secretive "Super PACs" and organizations that don't have to list their donors, former Congressman Paul N. "Pete" McCloskey has emerged from his retirement on California's North Coast to lead a charge against the hidden money of today's politics.
He was joined in late June by former state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber and current Assemblyman Jerry Hill at the Portola Valley home of Walter and Ruth Anne Bortz — and by about 120 Midpeninsula residents, most capable of providing financial support for a transparency campaign.
There are two fronts to the effort: California and nationally, both known as the "Disclose Act." The federal bill is officially the "Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections Act" (H.R.5175 and S.3628). The state AB 1648 is simply the "California Clean Money Campaign."
The immediate focus is California.
"All eyes are really on California, because if we cannot do it here we should not expect that we can do it in Washington, D.C., where it is so much harder," Lieber said at the gathering.
She reminisced about driving into Sacramento to the Assembly via an old iron drawbridge because the route "takes you down Capitol Mall straight at our state capital. And on Monday mornings it would look like a pristine, beautiful vision in white, like a white wedding cake that was just waiting to have a slice cut out of it. And I really felt the world of possibilities and that the best things about politics were possible.
"And by about 11:30 or so you'd see the masses coming toward the capital. You'd see the real impact of more than $500,000 a day in lobbying in Sacramento. It was hard not to start to lose a little bit of hope.
"But there are great and noble things that can be done by government. And something that we must have to be able to do those things is the clarity and transparency about who is spending money in politics. And the Disclose Act is the premier piece of legislation," to do that.
But Hill cautioned that the odds are high against passage of the California legislation this year.
"Last year I was very optimistic, very optimistic, when we came so close to getting it passed — so close to getting a couple of votes that we needed," he told the group, speaking as co-author of the bill.
"This year I'm not quite as optimistic. And the bill has changed and evolved.
"So we have a fight on our hands. There are interests coming in from a lot of different places right now. But it's crucial that we do this, the transparency that's necessary."
There's a broader issue:
"We're getting attacked at every level. The middle class in this country is being destroyed ... because of the interests that are fighting us," Hill said.
He provided a glimpse at the inner workings of the Legislature, relating to the close vote in 2011.
To get the to two-thirds, two Republican votes were needed. Some Republican members wrote a letter suggesting changes.
"So I went and sat and talked with a couple of the members on the other side of the aisle who had written the letter. And I said, "OK, if we were to take these amendments, if we were to do this would you then agree to it?"
Hill said the response was: "Well, no. This is a good start. We're right there. We're almost there."
He said he concluded that "We have to go another way because they will never close the deal."
Two votes short, the legislation moved to 2012.
McCloskey, 84, is an ex-Marine awarded both a Silver Star and Purple Heart plus a Navy Cross from earlier U.S. Navy service. A moderate Republican, he served in Congress from December 1967 to January 1983. He cited past political battles, including his abortive challenge to then-President Richard Nixon over the Vietnam War. His book, "Truth and Untruth: Political Deceit in America," infuriated conservatives.
He also recalled his primary-election challenge to former Assemblyman Richard Pombo, in a conservative Sierra Foothills district. In a Sunday-morning phone interview, McCloskey told me he knew he couldn't win in the Republican primary but if he did well enough to show Pombo was vulnerable the Democrats would be heartened and put forth a candidate strong enough to win the general election — precisely what happened.
But he switched parties in 2007, citing a disgust with the dominant Republican leadership of today. The feeling is mutual, dating back decades.
McCloskey said an example of big bucks influencing campaigns was in New Hampshire, where Annie McLane Kuster challenged a six-term incumbent and came within 1 percent of winning — despite a $100,000 contribution to her opponent from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. McCloskey characterized the overall issue as "a test between good and evil.
"If that happens all over the country, big money comes in, and with a hundred seats in the house up in any given year you can imagine what a million dollars (could do) — if the Koch brothers decided to throw in a million dollars against Annie McLane, can she win?
"So what we're up against ... is making it plain that some people are getting all of their money from corporate sources and others are getting it from individuals. And I think that given that information the public will generally make the proper choice — that they prefer not to be run by Standard Oil or whatever corporation, the Chamber of Commerce.
"I'm ashamed of the Chamber of Commerce," he said.
McCloskey's wife and fellow crusader, Helen Hooper, added a footnote to his remarks.
She said her grandfather told her that any business arrangement between friends should be formalized in a written agreement to prevent friendship from being tainted by vagaries of time and circumstance, and because "Anybody who's honest would not object to putting their name on a document they agreed to."
She said she's thought about that in terms of this clean money campaign "because there's such a disingenuous aspect to what's going on in politics in this country and we're moving so quickly to being a Third World nation on so many fronts.
"And the almost ruthlessness with which this is all happening really demands that we fight back. And I think that this (state) bill and this effort and initiatives like this are THE key thing to support."