Remarks in Celebration of CLC's 15th Anniversary
At a reception marking CLC's 15 years of advancing democracy President Trevor Potter delivered the following remarks.
We are the inheritors of more than two hundred years of work by those who have believed in American self-government. You will recall Benjamin Franklin's response to a woman outside Constitution Hall in Philadelphia who asked him, "What have you given us, Dr. Franklin—a monarchy?"— famously it was "A Republic, Madame, if you can keep it."
Since then, generations of Americans have devoted their lives to “keeping it”: to deepening and broadening our system of government, from a Republic to a democratic Republic, and expanding the electoral franchise to non-landholders, then to Catholic immigrants, then to African Americans after the Civil War, and then to women in the early 20th Century. Americans have worked to make paper promises a reality—as Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall and our elected leaders did with Voting Rights legislation in the 1960s.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty," but we are likely not as familiar with the second half: "power is forever stealing from the many to the few." That was Wendell Phillips, the great New England advocate for abolition, women's rights and Native Americans, over 150 years ago. This is a battle we all still fight today.
Liberty badly needs its vigilant defenders, for it has its enemies, and its supposed friends who are willing to shave a little off here, and off there, for partisan gain.
Some officeholders of both parties oppose non-partisan redistricting because they convince themselves that drawing district lines to advantage their party is actually for “the public good.” Others are increasingly comfortable using the power of government to manipulate voter registration, and voting rules and locations, to make it harder for the other political party to win elections. And still others believe our Constitution ordains not the political equality of all citizens, but that those with the most money should have the greatest say in our system of self-government. These officeholders need to be held to account, and these ideas challenged.
CLC was launched in 2002 as a non-partisan organization with bipartisan leadership, focused on campaign finance issues. One of its goals was to bring concentrated, extensive, high quality legal and litigation expertise to the campaign finance battle on behalf of the public interest. Such concentrated legal expertise was until then largely limited to the representatives of the political party committees, and to the special interests.
Another goal was to avoid duplicating the work of other—more experienced and larger—organizations. We are joined tonight by colleagues from many of these other organizations who are fighting for a better democracy, and I want to say what a pleasure it is for us to work alongside them in this battleground, informed by their history and vision.
There is much work for all of us to do. U.S. Supreme Court rulings have undermined our campaign finance laws and gutted voter protections, all in the face of legislative inaction and regulatory gridlock. And now, we have an administration, some of whose members take positions that threaten ethics norms and hard fought voting rights. Transparency in our government is under attack.
But I’m here today to say that there is hope, and we cannot give up. I believe CLC’s growth in capacity and mission over the past 15 years, in response to these threats, is a reason to be hopeful. CLC began 15 years ago with a small grant, a very specific mission, and an extremely small, but mighty, staff of three people. Year by year, we grew and were able to take on more and more. Today, we are a committed organization of over 30 people.
I would like to note at this point that we would not all be here tonight without the work of many years of our former Executive Director, the former head of the Voting Rights Section at the Department of Justice, Gerry Hebert. Gerry kept CLC going through thick and thin for 12 years as Executive Director, and we are fortunate that he agreed to lead our Voting Rights and Redistricting program when he decided to step down as Executive Director. He flew in for this event from Texas, where he was taking depositions yesterday in a voting rights case! Thank you Gerry, for all you have done—and do—for CLC.
Our organization’s roots are campaign finance litigation and regulatory reform, but as threats to our democracy have increased, so too has our portfolio of work and our impact. This year, CLC argued—thanks to the great Paul Smith, who joined us in January—the groundbreaking Supreme Court case, Gill v. Whitford, which seeks to end extreme partisan gerrymandering nationwide.
In addition, our challenge to Texas’ strict photo voter ID law prevented the state’s strict photo voter ID law from being in effect during the 2016 election, ensuring 600,000 voters who would have otherwise been disenfranchised were able to cast ballots.
In the past three years, CLC has offered policy guidance on democracy reform bills in 27 states and 16 municipalities. We are currently defending laws protecting disclosure and transparency in elections in almost every circuit in the country.
And, CLC continues to watchdog government officials and candidates, holding them accountable regardless of their political affiliation.
In this room are 33-some CLC staff, and many former staff, and a number of Board members. I will not introduce each of our staff members, but I do want to acknowledge that the CLC team is the brightest, most hardworking I have ever seen. Each of them is making—and has made—CLC what it is today. All of our staff—and those who will join us in the months and years ahead—are fighting to keep our Republic, perfect our Democracy, and vigilantly preserve our liberty.
We will not stop fighting until the U.S. political process is accessible to all citizens, resulting in a representative, responsive and accountable government. Thank you for joining us tonight, for supporting us, and for continuing to fight these battles with us.