Who Counts ... And Who Doesn't

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., left, discusses his plan for affordable health care during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2006. From left are, Wyden, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern, and Safeway President Steve Burd. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
AP Photo
After two days of wading through typical partisan rhetoric, it is a refreshing 15-minute walk from the Staples Center to Patriotic Hall for a slew of presentations on cleansing dirty money from elections.

Campaign finance reform was Wednesday's topic at the Shadow Convention, where organizers seek to shed light on subjects the Democratic and Republican conventions tend to ignore.

Standing next to a large sign that reads, "We can only vote every four years. Money votes every day," activist Ellen Miller of the watchdog group Public Campaign instructed everyone in the room to stand. She then told several rows of people to sit down, because they represent citizens who don't bother to vote.

Of the 100 or so people left still on their feet, she asks one person to remain standing. White, male and dressed in a suit, Miller said he represents the tiny fraction of Americans who contribute $1,000 or more to campaigns. As statistics would dictate, he would be over age 45 and earn more than $100,000 a year.

"You are the only person who counts," she said.

The "human bar graph" exercise is just one way the Shadow Convention hopes to show how campaign contributions strip away the power of all citizens, particularly minorities.

"At the most intimate level, the corruption of money excludes people," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Project.

Despite recent overtures from both major parties, Gonzalez says approximately five million Latinos remain outside of the political process in America.

"The nature of campaigning has shifted away from working people, those that feel less vested," in the process, Gonzalez said. He cited a survey on voter apathy, which showed Latinos feel less involved because politicians don't campaign in their neighborhoods or address their issues. Though liberal Democrats such as Sen. Ted Kennedy may cry for a crackdown on HMOs at the Democratic convention nearby, Gonzalez said HMOs don't matter to many working people because they have no health insurance.

Spencer Overton, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, said the average Latino household income is only two-thirds of the average white household, while the average black household net worth is only one-tenth that of the average white household.

As a result, just 5 percent of all federal contributions come from minorities and "fewer contributions mean politicians give less attention," he said.

Overton is a founding member of the Fannie Lou Hamer Project, named for the African-American woman from Mississippi who challenged the credentials committee at the 1964 Democratic Convention. Hamer testified that Mississippi's all-white delegation did not fairly represent the people of her state because most blacks had not been allowed to vote.

"Thirty-six years later, illegitimate practices still allow some Americans to have a seat of power, while otherswho cannot afford to give a big check, are locked out," said Overton.

The Hamer Project is now working to make campaign finance a civil rights issue. The group is seeking the support of the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus, but Overton - who is black - conceded he has met resistance from Afrcan-American politicians who are comfortable with the current system. "Black politicians are black, but they're still politicians," he said.

Just seven years out of Harvard Law, Overton cut his teeth as a member of the counsel for the Democratic National Committee during the 1996 campaign finance scandals.

So what does he think of the Democrats meeting down the road who claim to be the party of real diversity?

Overton says while the Democrats have more minorities represented in their delegations, they're not that different from the Republicans when it comes to representation at the more important gatherings held "away from the cameras ... in an upstairs suite ... where the politicians spend much of their time raising money."

"The people in those rooms look less like America, and more like the 1964 white delegation of Mississippi," he said.