Nestled in a corner of the downtown library, about 20 community members absorb a lesson in government and democracy. Despite the seemingly dull topic, the Thursday night crowd possessed an electric energy. They’re part of Represent.Us, a national anti-corruption campaign. That night, they considered lobbying — the good and bad, but mostly the bad.
Unlike other political groups, the group has a single focus: pass the American Anti-Corruption Act. Members first work to pass a resolution at the local level, then state, ending ideally with a nationwide policy.
The group has earned national attention, including that of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence. Lawrence partnered with Represent.Us in August to raise money for the organization. Video messages, including Lawrence drinking wine while advocating for the campaign, is how word on social media spread. It’s also how Vancouver Represent.Us chapter leader Nicole Laurent discovered the organization and became involved.
“I couldn’t think of a single issue that was important to me that wasn’t fed by these types of (corruption) problems,” Laurent said. “I have only so much time and only so much energy so if I’m going to fight all of them I felt like this comprehensive piece was really the very best use of my time.”
Since founding the chapter in September 2016, Laurent said the group has quickly grown. In fact, the chapter is so successful, they’ve collected the most signatures in support of the anti-corruption act in the U.S.
“People really care about this,” she said. “This has the capacity to really bring our community together and get us working on a systemic change that is not politically based.”
How it works
The process begins with a non-binding agreement implemented by a city council. The agreement essentially states that the local government supports transparency and acknowledges the need to revise the campaign contribution and lobbying processes.
“Each resolution is customized to the city,” Laurent said.
This particular pathway is in place because it’s a “well-known strategy to build local momentum to get state changes and to get national changes,” she said. A similar process was used to legalize same-sex marriage.
But getting the resolution approved is at the behest of the local chapter.
“It’s up to us to talk to the city council members and see if we can get them to endorse the American Anti-Corruption Act,” Laurent said. “Our local officials really need to understand, in order to make state and national changes we need them to support us.”
Richard McCluskey, part of the Represent.Us communication team, said the local-first approach makes sense as it starts with the people who are most likely to listen to you.
“Which are the people that you see on the street?” McCluskey said. “Our local legislators are just citizens like the rest of us. They’re here in our community, and we can talk to them. They are our peers.”
So far, though, only one Vancouver City Council member has signed on.
“For me, I took a look at their platform and it doesn’t necessarily 100 percent apply to local government, but (supporting) the philosophy and belief that you should have open and transparent government … is a way for me to make a statement that we should be able to take big money out of politics,” said Councilor Alishia Topper.
If all goes according to plan, a resolution should be before the Vancouver City Council after the election wraps up.
“They’re moving slowly, but I hope with enough political support they can get some momentum,” Topper said.
Regardless of how long it takes to implement a resolution, Topper said she thoroughly supports the movement.
“I think it’s great because it’s a citizen-driven effort, so we have local individuals that are very passionate about positive change,” she said. “To me, anytime you can get a group of volunteers together to try and effect change, it’s great.”
Getting more city councilors on board is key, Laurent said. But aside from Topper, no one has agreed to endorse the act.
“They’re not as open to it as I thought they would be,” she said.
Under the guise of transparency, the group makes memes to show who’s endorsed and who hasn’t. Councilor Bill Turlay, for example, is featured for refusing to endorse the act. He told Represent.Us he was “going to pass on this issue,” when contacted to talk about an endorsement.
“We think people should know what their city council members are championing and what they’re not,” Laurent said.
Getting the proposal approved by the Vancouver City Council isn’t the last step in the groups’ fight against corruption. The American Anti-Corruption Act has 12 provisions, all told. In the next several years, Laurent said they hope to pass a few more to keep momentum up and help push Washington forward.
For her, it’s not so much a question of what’s wrong with Vancouver, but a need for local involvement to spur national change.
“Your constituents, they need you to champion this stuff at a local level or the state and national level isn’t going to happen,” she said. “The expectation has grown in terms of what we need from you. There’s always room for improvement on a local level.”