“We the People” Need to Take Back the First-in-the-Nation Primary

If I had had the chance to shake former Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s hand at his well-publicized meet-and-greet in Derry, New Hampshire, I would have slipped him a one dollar bill emblazoned with red-ink that says “Not To Be Used For Bribing Politicians.” That pretty much sums up the frustration, cynicism and raw anger Granite Staters feel about the condition of politics in our country. The Ehrlich event was supposed to be the kick-off for his swing through New Hampshire. But they wouldn’t let me in the door. Invite-only, and I wasn’t on the list.

There used to be an upside to the year before the New Hampshire primary.

Up-close, unscripted campaign events helped test the mettle of the candidates. Long hours on the campaign trail tested their endurance. Random questions during accidental encounters helped prove whether or not they knew the issues, and whether they could think on their feet without consultants and speechwriters.

In coffee shops, living rooms and agricultural fairs, New Hampshire voters got to know each of the presidential candidates as people: know their strengths, learn their character. And it was that full, fleshed-out understanding of the candidates-as-individuals that we brought to the voting booth on Primary Day.

But I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. Unless you are a billionaire like Sheldon Adelson or George Soros, it’s nearly impossible to gain access to a candid meet-and-greet with the candidates.

I did get in the door for WMUR’s “Conversation with the Candidate” for Gov. George Pataki. Except it wasn’t exactly a conversation. I sat in the audience while the candidate was interviewed. They wouldn’t let us take pictures or record the “conversation” ourselves. They screened the audience questions, and only the softball questions got asked. Then the station took two days to edit the piece before it aired.

Whose interests are being served here? Certainly not the interests of “We the People.” If we can’t get in the door – or participate in the “conversation” – how can we choose a president to represent us in Washington?

This year is shaping up to be as artificial as “Sweeps Week” – pretty, prepackaged, over-the-top and synthetic. It’s great for the mainstream media, it’s better than great for billionaires who want to buy access and influence and it’s necessary for the candidates who need to raise money – record amounts of money – to run a national campaign. But it’s bad for the people and it’s detrimental to our democracy.

New Hampshire voters know it. And we’re mad as hell about being shut out of the political process. But we’re fighting back in the best New Hampshire tradition. In January, hundreds of us walked from the four corners of New Hampshire to the State House, protesting big money in politics as part of the “New Hampshire Rebellion.”

And we’ve launched a massive petition with StampStampede.org. We’re recruiting over 6,500 Granite Staters to legally stamp messages like “Not to Be Used For Bribing Politicians” on over 3.4 million one-dollar bills (Approximately 10 percent of the currency in circulation in New Hampshire). It’s the same technique used more than a hundred years ago to help women win the right to vote.

If you’re angry about being closed out of the process, you can stamp out your frustration. Each stamped bill will be seen by approximately 875 people. Together, we’ll create millions of miniature billboards that no one can ignore, not even the establishment politicians who don’t want to hear what we have to say: We want to get big money out of politics and take back our government.