Beth Rotman, Money in Politics & Ethics Program Director, Common Cause, discusses campaign finance reform, her decision to pursue public interest law, and why the 2021 inauguration was a reminder to not take our democracy for granted.
What drew you to Common Cause?
The Common Cause team is truly extraordinary, and I have never seen a more dedicated group of colleagues work harder to empower all Americans to make their voices heard. Common Cause is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest and promotes opportunity and representation for all. I actually met some of my colleagues, and our president Karen Hobert Flynn “in the trenches” when I was founding the government program implementing the landmark Citizens’ Election Program in Connecticut and Karen was leading Common Cause after passing the sweeping reform package. It was then that I saw the true power and possibility of having the very best people working both inside and outside of our government—to make it truly a government for all of us.
Why did you choose to take the path of an attorney who fights for our democracy?
I knew that I would take the path of a public interest attorney, and had chosen to attend New York University School of Law because of this drive. I have always served the public and was honored to start this public service as a law clerk for the Second Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, where I had one extraordinary mentor, the Honorable Sonia Sotomayor, who now serves on the U.S. Supreme Court.
I was extremely fortunate to have someone as wise as Judge Sotomayor care enough about me to sit down and discuss my upcoming interviews. When I mentioned that I had an interview with the New York City Campaign Finance Board, she literally jumped out of her chair with excitement — so this obviously made an impression. It turned out that she had served as a founding board member of the agency which oversees NYC’s landmark municipal public financing program. We discussed how meaningful democracy reforms can be and how the best democracy reforms make everything else possible. I landed the counsel job and never looked back. We stayed in touch as I moved on to found a state-wide program, the Citizens’ Election Program, which set the standard for state campaign finance reform and inspires hope for change across the country. One great mentor makes all of the difference which is why I can’t stop myself from mentoring young staff members—whether they sign-up for my support or not.
The end of Trump’s presidency and the days leading up to the start of Biden’s brought many issues to the forefront. What is your hope for our nation at such a remarkable time?
I believe that the people must win, and then win again. The American people elected new leadership to tackle extraordinary challenges, including a global pandemic and an economy in freefall. Democracy is how we tackle these challenges and agree on solutions. The influence of big money in politics and conflicts of interest skew the playing field of our democracy, and interfere with attaining the best solutions.
We are at a time in this nation when Americans are engaged and have demanded change. So, we are already on a journey to strengthening our democracy. There is a spirit of hopefulness even in this extraordinarily challenging time, but many need to understand how we best move forward together in America. Common Cause is working on this state-by-state, and at a national level with the For the People Act, a transformational clean elections reform package. My recent analysis of the landmark Citizens’ Election Program offers research and insight as to how we can shift the balance of power back to the people across our nation.
How has the Open The Government supported your reform work?
The reform community knew we needed to hit the ground running with a new administration and the Open The Government coalition offered the ideal forum to work together on reforms for Day One [of the new administration]. Because of Open The Government, the incoming administration entered their roles better prepared, and literally with a guidebook of the most critical democracy reforms written by many of the country’s top reformers. This undoubtedly saved time at this critical moment. It was a great day for democracy when we saw so many of our ethics recommendations included in the ethics executive order Biden signed as soon as he took office. This executive ethics order set the tone for a better “new day” for Americans who need to trust their elected leaders to agree on solutions that lift up all Americans.
What was the inauguration day like for you?
I was overcome by emotion on inauguration day, recognizing that our democracy has survived and there is genuine hope for a more perfect union. I may have occasionally taken democracy for granted in the past, even though I have fought for it my entire career.
Like our new leadership, my whole soul is in it. I say this in honor and in memory of my father Harris Rotman, a hero who survived war-time Navy service but not coronavirus. As one of the many broken-hearted Americans in mourning after losing part of my family, I appreciated the true leadership of including a silent prayer for the millions of Americans who have lost people close to them. This was a moment of “mi sheberach” or prayers for healing the soul of our nation.
I was also blown away by the poet Amanda Gorman who sees a “country that is bruised but whole.” I will see and be the light for my daughters Ariela and Liori who are now old enough to understand why I work on democracy issues with the passion and optimism required of us.