Trevor Potter rode what may be the most improbable path to fame in recent history: late-night comedy by way of the Federal Election Commission. He’s probably the only practicing lawyer your grandson has ever heard of, and now he’s returning to Chautauqua Institution.
Potter, who served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, entered the public eye in 2011 when Stephen Colbert started his own super PAC, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, to satirize the modern American campaign finance system. Potter appeared as the straight man to confirm that the Peabody Award-winning, million-dollar fundraising parody was fully legal. He will give a lecture at 10:45 a.m. July 4 in the Amphitheater titled “A Republic, If We Can Keep It,” a warning about the influence of money on democracy.
“I still have people stop me and recognize me and say, ‘Thank you for that. It was a great service to the country,’ which is always a little startling,” Potter said.
Potter never thought he’d be on TV. He never even thought he’d do work in campaign finance. He said he didn’t study it at the University of Virginia Law School, but when he worked on the George H.W. Bush campaign in 1988, he was in charge of making sure that everyone understood and adhered to the FEC’s regulations. The topic spoke to his longtime interest in American history and the Constitution, Potter said, and he became engrossed. In 1991, Bush appointed Potter to the FEC, where he served until 1995.
Back then, Potter said the campaign finance system was far better: less corrupt and more transparent. Colbert’s parody was praised for bringing unparalleled attention to cracks in the foundation that have emerged in the 17 years since Potter left the FEC, but nearly five years later after the satire, Potter said the system is still in dire need of reform.
Along with millions of voters this election season (perhaps following the lead he set on “The Colbert Report”) Potter cited the Citizen United v. FEC Supreme Court ruling as one of the critical fissures threatening American democracy. The ruling legalized the super PACs Colbert mocked, allowing those private organizations to solicit unlimited undisclosed donations from people, corporations and unions, and spend it freely — so long as they did not “coordinate” with any candidate. The ruling allowed for an unprecedented amount of money to flow into the politics — the industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch alone pledged to spend $889 million this election season. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all said they would try to overturn the ruling.
But Potter pointed to the failings in his old organization, the FEC, that are often overlooked. He said the FEC currently has three Republicans and three Democrats who can’t agree on anything and won’t enforce the campaign restrictions that exist. When the Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, Potter said, the judges said shareholders would know how corporations were spending their money and voters would know who was paying for advertising.
“That has not turned out to be the case,” Potter said. “We have hundreds of millions of dollars in what’s known as ‘dark money,’ money that is being raised in secret, … and the voters don’t know how all the money is being spent. That’s directly contradictory to what the Supreme Court said should happen. And the reason for this problem is the Federal Election Commission.”
Potter said this election has only made the problem more acute. Donald Trump succeeded precisely because he pledged to not take any money, Potter said, but rather than creating an alternative to the current system, that argument leads to a world where only billionaires can run for president.
Conversely, Potter said, Sanders raised so much money — $229.1 million, according to The New York Times — because he spoke to a deep anger and intensity in his supporters. The Sanders model, he said, promotes too many extremist candidates.
“We do not want to be in a place where the most extreme candidates raise tons while people in the center, moderates who may be more qualified but not as exciting, do not have ability to raise money and compete in elections,” Potter said.
Potter still holds out hope things can change, though. He points to the significant role campaign finance played in this election as evidence reform may be around the corner.
“Unless our democracy, our representational system is really malfunctioning,” Potter said, “when voters by percentages of 80, 87 percent of people think we ought to do something, I would expect that our representatives in Washington will be listening.”