Common Cause — “the original citizens’ lobby” — is “committed to . . . encouraging citizen participation in democracy.” Well, maybe not all citizens. Down in Georgia, where the nonpartisan, if generally left-leaning, Common Cause has been led by a balance of Left and Right, the national organization has just carried out a purge.
Earlier this week, the national organization formally removed former board chairman Bob Irvin, a Republican, and incoming board chairman Terry Taylor, a Democrat, from the state’s board, prompting two other board members to resign in protest: Lucius Morton, the outgoing chairman and a Republican, and Phyllis Fraley, an Independent. Together they make up one-third of the state organization’s leadership.
The move comes one year after Miles Rapoport, formerly president of the liberal think tank Demos and Connecticut secretary of state, took over as Common Cause’s president, and announced a new slate of mandatory left-wing causes. “We were told, ‘You have to sign on, or you’re out,’” says Taylor. The demands were made in “very, very clear terms.”
Founded in 1970 by John W. Gardner, a Republican who served as secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, Common Cause was intended to promote accountability and transparency in government at every level. It spearheaded the effort that resulted in the 1974 Federal Election Campaign Act. Two years earlier, Common Cause’s lawsuit against President Nixon’s Committee for the Re-Election of the President, charging a violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, forced the disclosure of the names of several Nixon donors. The “nonpartisan” organization has long been left-leaning at the national level, but various state chapters have achieved balanced leadership and results admired on both sides of the aisle.
That was certainly true of Common Cause Georgia, which began in the 1980s. “Process issues” had been Common Cause Georgia’s focus since he began on the board in 2003, says John Sours, a Republican who also chaired the state chapter in 2007 and 2008: ensuring government transparency, holding elected officials accountable, and the like. “I thought we should somewhat narrow our perspective, focus on two, three, four things about which there was broad agreement on the board, and work hard on those.” And that was fine with the national powers-that-be, which besides the occasional check-in, largely left the state to set its own agenda.
Not so Rapoport. “He had a very clear agenda early on,” says Taylor. “He wanted to promote a broader range of progressive priorities.” That agenda includes addressing climate change, gun control, student-debt relief, and the minimum wage. Common Cause has chosen as a prime target the American Legislative Exchange Council — a conservative-leaning nonprofit that crafts state-level legislation on a variety of issues — partly on the grounds that ALEC opposes legislation related to climate change. “That’s a very different message than talking about holding power accountable,” says Taylor. And he “demanded that all of us on the CCGA board agree to support whatever positions CCDC takes, ‘without further complaint,’ including even working on issues in which we do not personally believe,” the resigning members wrote in a statement. “He has demanded that we do this, or that we must resign or be removed.”
Jenny Flanagan, Common Cause’s vice president for state operations, maintains that nothing has changed in the organization. The issues on which Common Cause is focusing “have been part of Common Cause’s mission for many years, dating back to the 1970s,” she says. As for the Georgia board members, “It came down to an issue of governance.#….#These two individuals [Irvin and Taylor] didn’t support Common Cause’s mission, and insisted on a different governing structure for the organization.” She adds that “Common Cause does not currently have a national position in support of minimum wage or on issues of climate change.”
“It’s officially a lockstep, left-liberal, polemic group that, in my opinion, is probably going to wither on the vine.”
“The saddest thing to me,” says Taylor, “is I think the board worked just fine. We disagreed, but we kept it down the center of the aisle.” And, most important, Common Cause Georgia was effective. In 2013 Georgia governor Nathan Deal (R.) signed the state’s first law restricting gifts from lobbyists to legislators. Common Cause advocated for the law with the help of the Tea Party, the League of Women Voters, and Georgia Watch, a consumer-advocacy organization. Says Irvin, who, before he joined Common Cause, led the Republican minority in the Georgia House from 1994 to 2000: “It took that kind of across-the-board support to be able to successfully make the argument that this was something the state needed to do, and it was not an ideological issue. It’s that credibility [as a nonpartisan organization] that gives you the ability to do things.”
Common Cause no longer has that in Georgia. “If they can ever get another Republican on the board,” says Taylor, “I’d be shocked.” Sours, who left the organization in 2010 and who currently heads the Georgia Governor’s Office of Consumer Protection, concurs: “It’s officially a lockstep, left-liberal, polemic group that, in my opinion, is probably going to wither on the vine.”
And the victims will be Georgia citizens: “There ought to be room for a genuinely centrist organization whose viewpoint is not so much ideological as it is trying to identify things which can be broadly agreed upon by people of goodwill of all sorts,” says Sours. “There’s a crying need for that in general in our society, which is not being met.”
Irvin agrees: “The state needs a nonpartisan watchdog organization. Common Cause Georgia is no longer that. We hope that another organization will arise to fulfill that need.” Of an organization that is “truly nonpartisan,” Terry says, “I would be all in on that.”
There is much handwringing and garment-rending over the “polarization” of politics today, and of the inability of Right and Left to work together. But it was happening in Georgia. That would seem to most people like progress. Just not to progressives.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.