On Sunday August 19, I met Massachusetts State Rep. candidate Mike Connolly at Veggie Galaxy on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge. We talked about Occupy, Connolly’s “no money” campaign., the role individual initiative can play in a democracy, and the relationship between creativity and progressive activism. The Boston Occupier neither endorses nor rejects Connolly’s candidacy and tactics.
D.J. Buschini: You’re running for office on a budget of $0.00 and you’re not accepting any campaign donations. One could see this for its artistic merits, as a kind of creative resistance. Just a moment ago I listened to you describe your campaign to a friend as “comedy.” So talk about this good-humored, creative framework –– “culture-jamming,” as it’s sometimes called –– and how you’re using it to try to transform the system from within.
Mike Connolly: Well, when Occupy happened last September, it was the most exciting political development of my life. Sure, lots of things have happened in my lifetime — but there hasn’t been much progress. We’re still at war, and the conditions of inequality and the problems of global warming continue unabated.
One of the underlying forces behind the Occupy Movement was Adbuster’s Magazine and the idea of culture-jamming. Prior to Occupy, I hadn’t really been too involved with this type of activism. But when Occupy happened, I met more and more folks in the movement, and I realized how many people were approaching these issues from the same perspective.
The other big issue attracting me to Occupy was the idea that we need to get money out of politics. There was one poster in particular that I became really obsessed with — I even printed it out and hung it up on my refrigerator! — and to me, it just said it all: it showed half a donkey and half an elephant, and they were linked together by dollar signs…and it said “Who Represents You? You Do!”
That sums it up. For me, the big demand is to get money out of the political system. Occupy really gave me the courage to take this “no money” concept all the way into the political arena.
The essence of my campaign is a call to “Donate $0.00 to support our cause.”
In this way, I am hoping to take a familiar refrain — the call of a political candidate asking for money — and flip it around until people start to question the state of our political system and the character of our democracy.
So is it creative? Is it comedy? Is it civil disobedience? I wouldn’t limit it to any one thing.
It’s everything, really. And I think that it is the way to go. What I actually want to do is set an example that can be replicated and that can have a positive impact.
D.J. Buschini: How could you actually get elected? Talk specifics.
Mike Connolly: For me, in this election, we need about 6,000 votes. We’re running against an incumbent [Tim Toomey] who has a number of things that people might find questionable. For example he voted against clean elections, he’s been in office 20 years, and he holds two elected positions at the same time. He’s a Cambridge city counselor –– that’s a $75,000-a-year, fulltime government job –– but then he’s also a state representative for Somerville and Cambridge. And that’s also pretty far out because how are the people in Somerville supposed to feel if their state rep has an office in Cambridge, is focused on Cambridge, has a full-time elected job that focuses on Cambridge? It makes Somerville a kind of afterthought.
In my own campaigning, even though there’s plenty to complain about, plenty of minute political issues (for example, I could be like, “Oh, Tim Toomey voted to transfer the debt from the Big Dig to the MBTA,” or “the incumbent did this,” or “the Democratic Party did that”) — I think lot of people have heard so much political mud-slinging that I don’t know if that’s the way to reach them.
D.J. Buschini: So what does a typical campaign week look like for you?
Mike Connolly: I’ve started to get into a routine and the routine is like this. I work from about 8:30 in the morning till about six in the evening. I work for a corporation, so it’s a very fast-paced job. I’m lucky if I even get to have a lunch that I eat at my desk. So there’s not much free time during the day.
Typically I will try to arrange a coffee meeting before work with, like, a local leader, or someone who’s earned a reputation for being a prominent activist.
Go to work, work all day.
Then usually try to do like one event in the evening. So recently I attended a construction meeting for the Broadway St. construction in East Somerville. So there’ll be like a neighborhood meeting where they’re reviewing some upcoming construction plans. It could be a neighborhood block party, or any kind of local meeting. I’ve gone to Rootstrikers meetings, move-to-amend meetings, different activities. Or just another planned event with a small group of local activists. So that’s sort of the Monday through Friday routine.
Then on Saturday and Sunday, I’ll wake up and do my errands –– you know, I gotta do my laundry and get my groceries and stuff –– and then I’ll go canvass from like 10:30 a.m. till 7 p.m.
So far, our biggest weekend canvass involved 14 people — and in less than three hours, we reached 1,700 voters in East Somerville.
D.J. Buschini: You said you’re spending an average of $50 per week, out-of-pocket. Practically speaking, what do you think is the “right” amount of money to spend on a campaign. Actually $0.00?
Mike Connolly: In my mind, the right amount is the absolute minimum.
In our campaign, there are no television advertisements. There’s no direct mail. There’s no professional staff. Any other “legitimate” campaign would have, like, professional handlers, and advisers. And there’s none of that.
Basically, the definition of the campaign I’m organizing is that I’m not accepting any financial contributions.
Moreover, I’ve always said that what I’m going to do is spend a modest amount of money. And for me that’s, yeah, like $50 a week, maybe $75. I don’t spend exactly $50 a week. It may be $150 one week, and then I don’t spend anything for a month or something.
I’m actually submitting a report to the state so all that is public knowledge.
So the principle behind this “no money” campaign is that it should be all do-it-yourself, and that you should enlist volunteer support, and you should enlist support on the local level.
But I’m not in favor of self-financed campaigns, in terms of –– “if you had a million dollars to spare you should spend all your money and buy political influence.”
That’s not me. I’m paying off $100,000 in student loans, and I pay expensive rent here in Cambridge. So I actually have hardly any disposable income.
Instead of going on a fancy vacation or fancy dinner, I’m using what little disposable income I do have to provide just basic materials for running for office. For me that is a website, domain space, and very modest fliers like the ones here [gestures toward fliers], which are black & white, as you see.
D.J. Buschini: I understand a local professor recently presented you with a “big” check.
Mike Connolly: Well, Noam Chomsky’s office is here in Cambridge, and I recently had the tremendous pleasure of chatting with him about the campaign.
He is remarkably kind and generous in spirit. And at 83 years old, it’s phenomenal that he remains such a dedicated activist and social critic. I will count the day we hung out as one of the happiest days of my life. He’s just the nicest guy in the world.
Anyways, he told me that he thought the country was ready for the kind of positive example that we are hoping to set with our campaign. He actually compared our effort to get money out of politics with the start of the Civil Rights Movement. You know, he said that the “civil rights movement took off when a couple of black kids sat down at a lunch counter…”
In other words, this tremendous social accomplishment started with just a few people who were determined to set a new example.
Once that first example is set, other people learn about it, and then others follow by setting positive examples of their own — and this is how you change society.
Noam also mentioned that this same process of leading-by-example was instrumental in the Women’s Movement as well.
So in our case, we are organizing this campaign without raising money. We are doing it to set a positive example, and we hope others will join our cause and also form similar campaigns in other state-level elections in the future.
D.J. Buschini: How did you first get involved with the Occupy Movement?
Mike Connolly: I was aware that 9/17 was coming up on Wall St. But I work fulltime for a software company in Boston and I’m a project manager, so unfortunately the nature of my job made it so that I couldn’t really just travel to New York for a weekend. So I was watching it day-in and day-out like everyone else.
The mainstream media wasn’t really providing adequate coverage. But I was following friends on facebook and twitter. That website firedoglake.com was providing some decent coverage.
Then when I heard that Occupy Boston was in its planning stages, I got right on board. So I was probably like the thirtieth person to “like” the facebook page, I knew it was happening and went to all the planning GA’s (General Assemblies).
There’s a picture of me from the first night just pumping my fist in the middle of the street with a crowd of people that are just so excited and so happy. We felt so liberated.
Then we went down to the Federal Reserve building and there was just a crowd of like 1,000 people just like dancing and chanting. I actually had the experience where the commanding officer of the Boston Police singled me out to ask what was going on. I guess because I’m huge, you know? I’m 6’8’’.
D.J. Buschini: Then Occupy solidarity encampments sprouted up all over the United States and all over the world. Describe how you continued to stay involved.
Mike Connolly: After September 30, I got involved with the Legal Working Group. I’m also an attorney so that seemed like a natural place for me to be involved.
I remember the night the Boston Police arrested over 140 protesters. That was just completely shocking to me. I had never been that close to what I would call a military operation. So when I saw that gauntlet of militarized police vehicles and police officers come and sort of charge this green where there were Veterans for Peace, and people like that…it was really a stunning symbol and a stunning display.
So then when the physical occupation ended, I gravitated towards the Citizens United working group. We called it Citizens United to End Political Bribery.
Money in politics was really the number-one issue that turned me onto Occupy and it’s certainly been my number-one cause for a while now. So the cool thing was that right when I decided to get involved with Citizens United, we started gearing up for the two-year anniversary of the Citizens United decision. We planned this huge rally and summit to unite citizens for democracy.
We ended up getting Lawrence Lessig ( http://www.lessig.org ), who is one of the predominant academic thinkers in the field. He came. State Senator Jamie Eldridge came –– who is the only public official to actually win an election using the clean elections law. (Which, after he succeeded, our legislature voted to nullify and zero out of the budget.) But so we had some really wonderful people for that.
And after that experience was about the time when I started focusing on my own campaign. So working full time, planning a wedding (I’m engaged to be married next year), and the campaign have been pretty much the three things I’ve been focused on.
D.J. Buschini: Congratulations on the wedding.
Mike Connolly: Thanks!
D.J. Buschini: So how would you assess the activities of Occupy Boston in the months since forces evicted its public assembly at Dewey Square?
Mike Connolly: Well, for the past several months I’ve been primarily focused on the campaign that we’re organizing here in Cambridge and Somerville, so I really couldn’t render an assessment over the past few months. I’m friends with a lot of people in the movement, I follow it on facebook. But obviously since things have sort of transformed into the non-physical Occupy era… I dunno. Assess in what way?
D.J. Buschini: Any notable successes or failures you’ve observed?
Mike Connolly: I’ve noticed the fare strikes. I’ve felt like the fare strike has been a really positive development and I’m always supportive of civil disobedience and I think it merits people’s attention and support. So that’s certainly one activity I’ve been aware of. But since around February or so, I’ve really started becoming focused on this effort of my own.
D.J. Buschini: Let’s talk about the T. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has recently approved a set of fare increases and cuts in service in order to fill a massive budget hole. Do you approve of these service cuts and fare increases as a way to fill the gap? What would you do, if elected, to help fix the MBTA’s financial woes?
Mike Connolly: No, I don’t approve of the fare increases, or the service cuts. The MBTA’s budget woes all started when my opponent voted to go along with the rest of the legislature on a risky, “forward funding” scheme that was initially proposed by a certain Republican governor over a decade ago.
In addition to under-funding the MBTA, this crazy plan also dumped billions of dollars of debt from the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (the “Big Dig”) on to the books of the MBTA — and to this day, the T is still struggling to keep up with the burden of this debt.
This one failed policy is the root cause of today’s massive budget shortfall — but here’s the thing — experts and activists have been sounding the alarm about this problem for many years — and yet our state legislature has willfully ignored the issue. By April 2009, the MBTA’s Advisory Board actually declared that the T was headed over a fiscal cliff — and still, the state legislature did nothing to revisit the forward funding scheme and relieve some of that Big Dig debt.
Personally, I think this is an example of why it’s important for us to engage the political system. Despite this stunning failure on the part of the legislature, and despite the painful nature of this year’s fare increases and service cuts, the fact remains that two-thirds of all state legislators are facing no challenge in this November’s election.
In my district, the legislature’s failure to address the MBTA budget issue has resulted in continued delays of the Green Line Extension project (“GLX”). This is a vital project that would improve the quality of life for people in Somerville by reducing commute-times and lowering air pollution. The Commonwealth actually committed to this project back in 1991, but the legislature’s continued failure to support the MBTA has led to countless setbacks and delays. And get this: there is actually a federal program called “New Starts” that is meant to help states pay for public transportation projects in densely populated areas like Somerville and Cambridge. The program is capable of delivering over $500 million to help us complete the GLX. However, the Federal Transit Administration has made it clear that the fiscal outlook of the MBTA does not merit confidence, and they recently warned us that “considerable progress” must be made before they will contemplate a final approval. So thanks to the failure of the politicians on Beacon Hill, the future of this badly needed extension of the Green Line into Somerville remains uncertain.
If elected, I would seek to raise revenue by rescinding tax breaks that were granted to big financial institutions in 2008. As the financial crisis was starting to unfold in ’08, our state legislature went along with what the Boston Globe described as “a flurry of lobbying by high-powered banks,” lowering the tax rate on the big banks from 10.5% to 9%.
So I think the first place we should look to close the budget shortfall is the big banks and the 1%. In addition to that, there’s a range of other options we can pursue to raise revenue. But the guiding principle should be that we raise revenue in a truly progressive fashion — with the richest of the rich being asked to foot most of the bill.
It’s simply breathtaking that our state legislature felt comfortable to not address the underlying fiscal issue this year.
It’s like if you were driving a car, saw you were headed over a cliff, but instead of changing course you were like, “Ah, I’ll just dive over the cliff, crash, blow up, and then worry about it next year.”
That’s kind of the attitude of the legislature: “Don’t actually engage this issue unless it’s an all-out emergency.”
Somerville has been waiting for the Green Line for 22 years
D.J. Buschini: So, considering the T Fare Strike Coalition, Free Fare Fridays, and the public opposition to fare hikes…what’s the “right” relationship between nonviolent civil disobedience and the democratic process?
Mike Connolly: I think the “right” relationship is society should stop and appreciate acts of civil disobedience probably more than they do. I think civil disobedience should be considered a valid and meaningful form for political input, and I’m afraid that sometimes it isn’t. You know what I mean?
I think the fare strike is a positive thing.
Anything to do with civil disobedience is a personal choice.
Sometimes with the media it’s just like, “Twelve people were protesting this and got arrested and that’s the story.” It doesn’t go any deeper.
When there are people engaged in civil disobedience, I’d like to see it go to that next level, like, the media stop what they’re covering and go and interview those people. You know? Find out really, what is it that brought them there? What is it that led them to do this?
If people are engaging in civil disobedience, then their concerns should be amplified throughout the political system and throughout the coverage of political issues.
For more information, visit http://www.nomoneyconnolly.org/.