The Voters' Advocate
As leader of Common Cause, Scott Harshbarger wants to make everyone as passionate about government reform as he is
In the summer of 1999, Scott Harshbarger '68 told his children that he was considering a job as president and CEO of Common Cause. They were happy for their father, who seemed energized by the prospect.
There was just one problem. His five children, all in their 20s and 30s, didn't know what Common Cause was.
For Harshbarger, that lack of recognition reinforces his challenge to bring a once thriving organization back to the forefront of recognition and viability. A former district attorney, state attorney general, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Harshbarger was tapped two years ago as the first politician ever to lead Common Cause. It was a dramatic change for an organization that touts its nonpartisan credentials, but change itself was part of the point.
"There comes a time for adjustments within an organization," said Fred Wertheimer '62, former president of Common Cause and current president of Democracy 21, a public policy group in Washington. "You have an evolutionary process, and that was the circumstance that Scott faced when he came in. You're always looking to reach out and build as broad an effort as you can. My sense of what [Common Cause] is doing is to take the core beliefs and philosophy and commitment of the organization and redo it and move it forward."
Founded in 1970 by John Gardner, Common Cause has operated as a watchdog at the local and federal levels, exposing wasteful practices and urging accountability from government officials. In its history, it has helped reform the tax system, establish financial disclosure requirements, restrict gifts to Congress, and block expansion of weapons systems.
Common Cause is best known, however, for its long-standing advocacy of campaign finance reform. While this spring's congressional debate over campaign finance reform gave Common Cause renewed prominence, even some advocates say that the organization has been too closely associated with its signature issue. For anyone associated with Common Cause, campaign finance reform is indeed important, an issue that in fact dominated Harshbarger's agenda during the recent debate over the McCain-Feingold bill. But it should not dominate the agenda of an organization that sees campaign finance reform as only the first step in its ultimate mission, said Harshbarger.
"Even though it was a very important issue, campaign finance reform had become almost the defining issue rather than an example of the reason for Common Cause's origins, that money had taken over and the special interests had overridden the public interest," he said.
Thus, as he worked to ensure the passage of meaningful reform, Harshbarger downplayed the expectation that any single piece of legislation would fix the system. He also worked to draw in the disenfranchised to participate anew--or for the first time--in the system that had alienated them, to instill in others the guiding principle that has defined his career: Public service matters.
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Scott Harshbarger is like Bill Clinton in one specific way. Though chided for a stiff, plodding style in the campaign arena, Harshbarger makes anyone who meets him feel like the most important person in the world. In Common Cause headquarters in Washington, D.C., he storms at a visitor like the football player he used to be at Harvard College. But instead of a block, he throws all his passion, the passion that inspired a near reverence among his employees at the Massachusetts attorney general's office, which he led for eight years. He can--and does--talk about the joy of public service all day. The least interesting thing you do as a public servant, he says, is more interesting than the most interesting thing you do in the private sector.
"I think Scott's only really happy when he's working in the public interest for something he believes in," said Derek Bok '54, Common Cause chairman. Harshbarger's passion for public service inspired the board of Common Cause as it searched for a new president, said Bok. In addition, he said, Harshbarger combined the savvy gained from political experience with the desire to reform the processes of government.
"He has an exemplary record in attracting able people and creating an atmosphere in which they're really energized to work hard for a common goal, and we certainly need that," said Bok, former HLS dean and Harvard University president. "He's a very public sector, public policy person, and I think he was genuinely excited about the prospect of taking an organization with a great tradition and well-known name and lifting it to a higher level by the sheer energy and commitment that he brings to the job."
Harshbarger nearly brought those qualities to the State House in Massachusetts, narrowly losing the 1998 gubernatorial election to Paul Cellucci. But it is how he lost that actually enhanced his credibility and quelled doubts about a losing political candidate leading Common Cause. While labor unions and rank-and-file Democrats supported Harshbarger, much of the state's party leadership spurned his candidacy, political payback for investigations of prominent Democrats he conducted as attorney general.
"The reason I'm here and not governor of Massachusetts is because I was an independent Democrat," he said. "One of the great things about being attorney general was that you had the opportunity and the responsibility to do what you thought was the right thing regardless of politics. So the irony was to come here and realize that I was looked at as partisan by many members of Congress, who said, well, that proves Common Cause has always been a Democratic organization.
"I saw myself primarily as a lawyer, as attorney general or district attorney, and not as a politician per se. I felt that what I had done was be professional, exercise discretion responsibly, make judgments that balance principles, not compromise, and take on tough interests. And that's exactly what Common Cause should be doing."
Any suspicion that Harshbarger would toe a party line at Common Cause was soon refuted when he chastised Vice President Al Gore over fund-raising improprieties. Harshbarger's Democratic friends thought he was unduly harsh, even though he also criticized George W. Bush, an equal opportunity critique for an equal opportunity problem, he said.
Common Cause knows how to criticize, perhaps too well, some have said. Often seen as a national scold that alienated even politicians sympathetic to its goals, the organization must focus as much on the best of government as on its problems, said Harshbarger. Government reform groups, he said, worked so hard to prove government was corrupt that they unwittingly helped convince people that government was not worth fighting for. Harshbarger, of course, believes that it is. So does Archibald Cox '37, professor emeritus at HLS and chairman emeritus of Common Cause.
"The fight is so important," said Cox. "If they want to have government by the people and for the people, they've got to do something so that it doesn't become simply government of those who have money to put up by those who are recipients of money in return for favors."
Now Harshbarger just has to get everyone else to believe too.
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Mitch McConnell, Republican senator from Kentucky, said of campaign finance reform, "The American people rate this issue right up there with static cling." He may be right. Patrons at the local diner were probably not debating the merits of the non-severability amendment during the Senate vote on the McCain-Feingold bill. How then can the convoluted and legalistic campaign finance reform issue compete with the bread and butter of taxes, education, health care, jobs?
This is how, says Harshbarger. Campaign finance reform--indeed all efforts to take the influence of money out of government decision making--means taxes, education, health care, jobs. Reform, he says, is as inexorably linked to real-world concerns as money is now linked to politics.
The donors of that money expect something in return, Harshbarger contends. He can cite a laundry list of such apparent quid pro quos: Airlines give soft money and Congress stifles a passenger bill of rights; Congress passes the Telecommunications Act to benefit the industry, not the consumer; the National Rifle Association gets its wish to stop preferential treatment for any gun maker that signs a firearm agreement with the government. These favors for the well-connected and well-financed do not favor democracy or the average American, Harshbarger says.
"It's not just to produce reform for the hell of it," he said. "We want people to care about child poverty and health care, or making our urban communities safe and healthy. And you know that's not Republican or Democratic. That's just a concept that we ought to be focusing on these problems. And somehow you believe that if you begin to get people to work together and take that on, you're going to win."
The Senate's recent passage of McCain-Feingold, which bans the donation of soft money to political parties, exemplifies the grassroots effort that moves politicians to act, Harshbarger said. For the two weeks of debate on the Senate floor, he lobbied senators directly to support reform and appeared throughout the media, stirring voters to contact their representatives. The bill never would have passed the Senate, said Harshbarger, without the pressure from an engaged electorate.
Advocates for reform still have a long way to go--not only with McCain-Feingold, which must pass the House and the president's desk and is then expected to face a court challenge. Harshbarger is also looking ahead to issues like free airtime for candidates and public financing of campaigns. But in order to accomplish its goals, Common Cause must strengthen its own financial resources, he concedes. Working with Bok, Harshbarger recently established an education fund for Common Cause that accepts foundation money. In its quest to remain independent from any outside influence, Common Cause had always rejected foundation support or major gifts. "The way we were doing business was for all intents and purposes putting Common Cause on a deathwatch," Harshbarger said.
Increasing and diversifying Common Cause's membership will also enhance the organization's finances and effectiveness, said Harshbarger. Numbering about 200,000 nationwide, the membership is largely white and graying, many inspired by the post-Watergate rush of reformist zeal in the '70s. Harshbarger wants to recruit more minority members, to welcome Republicans and businesspeople and others who may have felt that they didn't have a place in Common Cause, and to build coalitions with other reform groups. Most important, Harshbarger travels to college campuses to beseech young people to reject the cynicism about government that pervades their generation.
"We want to focus on young people because we have a whole generation that has grown up with very little concept about why getting involved matters," said Harshbarger. "I know from my own campaign they were the lifeblood. You get young people involved in your office. You get them involved here at Common Cause. You get them involved in your campaign. You get them involved as young teachers in urban areas. You get them involved as lawyers--who could be making a fortune--working in legal services. That will engage them.
"I think one of our great failures in this country is that we don't offer any young person who wants to have a public service experience that opportunity. The challenge for us is to create ways in which people can come to feel and understand by their own experience the way I have been lucky enough to feel because of my professional experiences."
As attorney general in Massachusetts, Harshbarger stopped casino gambling in the state, helped negotiate a settlement with tobacco companies, fought for-profit health care, and regulated handguns. Those achievements may more tangibly affect people's lives than his work to reform government, Harshbarger acknowledges. But his job now is no less important, he says. So he deflects the talk that he will once again run for governor of Massachusetts next year, though this time as an independent candidate. He notes a poll that shows he would win in a three-person race; the longer he stays away from the state, he jokes, the more popular he is.
The longer he stays away, in fact, the more Harshbarger relishes life away from partisanship, free from the fear of making political missteps and offending party kingmakers. He does not rule out a future run for office, but he is, right now, exactly where he should be, Harshbarger says.
"You have to have the fire in the gut, and for me the fire is the chance to lead this organization," he said. "People desire to have something they can truly believe in that is not partisan, but is also very much about public matters and issues, and has real blood and guts and hope. We can provide that."