Rather, their purpose will be to root out the undue influence of money in politics.
At Thursday’s event, at the home of Adam and Trina Venit, Russell will present McKay with the Of By For Impact Award, presented by a group with a mission of building anti-corruption campaigns at the state and local level.
McKay and Russell are both board members of Represent.Us, which is backing a number of anti-corruption ballot initiatives across the country, including measures in Washington state and South Dakota and local campaigns in two Illinois counties, as well as San Francisco.
“One of the great things about Represent.Us is they are not reliant on the federal government to make changes,” McKay said. “What is so smart is they are going for more of a local grassroots approach, with ballot propositions and local changes. That is always the way it happens.”
Russell recalls that when he was in college, he worked to pass initiatives at the local level, and “this is the same thing. I think things change when they come from the bottom up.”
Among the types of reforms Represent.Us is seeking are measures to ban politicians from taking money from lobbyists; disclosure of major donors of political advertisements; access to voter “credits” if candidates agree to raise money only from small donors or groups; and to crack down on the influence of “super PACs.” Those and other measures are outlined in the American Anti-Corruption Act, a template for statewide and local ballot initiatives and legislation.
“I thought, ‘What could this possibly be that would make any difference?'” Russell said. “Then I thought, ‘Well, this.’ If you got to take corruption out of government, that would make a real change.”
McKay says he got involved in Represent.Us after Arianna Huffington introduced him to the group’s executive director, Josh Silver. They chatted and over a period of time, “I just decided to go all in. This is sort of the cause that can help all other causes.” McKay then enlisted Russell. In addition to things like making PSAs, their work also raises visibility.
“I think that millennials and younger people, and maybe even older people, don’t understand that there weren’t always 300,000 lobbyists in Washington. That is what this is about,” Russell said.
Silver said that the two filmmakers “are elevating the profile of the anti-corruption movement in a way that others have done for poverty and human rights,” he added. “They recognize that if we fix our democracy, we can fix nearly every other issue. That’s a powerful revelation, and they are not content to sit idly by.
McKay has long been politically active. He supported Bernie Sanders, who spoke often of campaign finance issues in Washington and a “rigged” economy. In fact, McKay said that “in some twisted way” Donald Trump also represented the issue of money in politics at the initial phases of his campaign. But McKay said that “pretty quickly it was apparent it wasn’t for real,” citing Trump’s own fundraising from big money donors. He said he will vote for Clinton.
Represent.Us, however, is non-partisan.
That was apparent when the organization championed an anti-corruption act that voters passed in the city of Tallahassee, Fla., in 2014. Its backers included representatives from tea party and progressive groups. It created an ethics commission, stricter contribution limits and incentives for small-dollar donors.
McKay believes that some of the initiatives would not only restore trust, but would help bridge the partisan divide, which he attributes to the influence of money in politics. “This is legalized corruption which has thrown our government out of balance, which isn’t good for anyone,” he says.
Still, McKay doesn’t fault those in the industry who make big-money donations to candidates and Super PACs. George Clooney hosted a high-dollar fundraiser for Clinton in May, but he still decried the influence of money in politics. An often heard argument is that while it’d be great to see campaign finance reforms, there’s also a pragmatism in not just disarming until the votes are there to do so.
“I don’t think they are wrong” to contribute, McKay says. “Especially when you have issues like climate change, it is better to participate than not.” But he says that he personally wouldn’t donate to entities like Super PACs.
Silver acknowledges that there is an “irony in enlisting powerful people in Hollywood to fight powerful people in DC. But we need to embrace that irony, because that is what it takes to win. And it’s impressive to see people who could spend their resources in a self-serving way instead choosing to fight corruption and help give everyday people a stronger voice.”
Another hope is that by passing a number of the initiatives locally, it eventually will put the onus on politicians at the federal level. There has been a perception among political pundits that by the time Election Day arrives, voters put other issues like the economy and national security as the most important, not campaign finance, even if they are linked.
Perhaps the populist mood is a signal that things are changing.
“Fingers crossed we are at a tipping point,” McKay says.