Author Neal Simon draws on his experience as a four-time CEO and 2018 independent candidate for the U.S. Senate in his newly released book, Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic, which highlights American Promise and calls for a constitutional amendment that would allow Congress and states to apply reasonable limits on campaign spending. At the 2019 National Citizen Leadership Congress, he was part of a panel discussion with fellow author Nancy MacLean. American Promise recently spoke with Neal again about his new book and his belief that the United States is headed into an era of democracy reform.
Experiences in the business and political worlds have formed Neal Simon’s point of view that the next era of American politics will be shaped by a citizen-led reform movement that is already building momentum in our nation. “I think we’re at the dawn of reform,” he says. “It’s important for people to understand that no one thing is a silver bullet, but collective reforms would really change our political structure.”
The systemic problems clogging the American political system—and the desire for change among a majority of voters—became evident throughout his 2018 candidacy for a U.S. Senate seat in Maryland. As an independent candidate unaffiliated with either major party, Neal saw firsthand how the pay-to-play system gives elected officials little reason to focus on or work toward solutions on major issues where most Americans agree—such as immigration or infrastructure investment—that could gain bipartisan support. Instead, they tend to prioritize and advance the wishes of big-money special interests.
“The answer to our country’s problems is not for the far left to win every election, and the answer is not the far right to win every election,” Neal says. He points to momentum across the country for democracy reform, including 23 reform initiatives that voters approved in 2018 touching on issues ranging from gerrymandering to independent election oversight commissions to ranked choice voting.
The potential for reform is real and strong, Neal says, because a majority of Americans from both political parties see dysfunctional government as the country’s biggest problem. “The answer is in fixing the system so we provide an incentive for our lawmakers to work together to fix the system—that’s what these reforms are about.”
Based on his experience and a review of reform initiatives across the nation, he shares a call for comprehensive democracy reforms including the 28th Amendment in a newly released book, Contract to Unite America: Ten Reforms to Reclaim Our Republic. The book, he says, is “designed for your average American who looks at our political system, thinks it’s broken, wonders why it’s become so polarized and dysfunctional, and wonders how to do something to fix it.”
Of the 10 democracy reform proposals Neal outlines in the book, six are electoral reform issues and two would encourage better behavior among politicians once elected. The remaining two address campaign finance law—including the 28th Amendment to limit donations from corporations, special interest groups, and wealthy individuals.
Neal has partnered with democracy reform organizations including American Promise to collaborate and bring more people into the movement for political reform. “We’re now thousands of people around this country fighting to fix this broken system of government. We need to become millions of people,” he says. “American Promise is truly one of the most effective organizations fighting to reform campaign finances, and they’re doing it in an honest, transparent and bipartisan manner. It’s only because of groups like American Promise that we have a chance to reform our political system.”
Who Wins in This ‘Game’ of Politics?
In his bid for a seat in the U.S. Senate, Neal saw how special interest groups funnel most of their funding to incumbent campaigns in a pay-to-play system that earns them policy influence and in essence allows them to set legislative agendas. In his book he notes that incumbents get $9 in special interest money for every dollar that goes to a challenger.
Rather than working toward solutions, elected officials are incentivized to focus on the “game” of politics so they can gain re-election and maintain their power.
“PAC money is very polarized, largely on the two ideological extremes,” Neal says. “So for me as a candidate who sees nuance in some issues and is not rabidly far right or far left, it was basically impossible to check all the boxes on any PAC form for potential campaign contributions.”
As an example, Neal points to his stance on immigration issues. “I happen to believe that our country should keep families together and have a path to citizenship for people who have been here for a long time and are law abiding,” he says. “But we shouldn’t have half a million people crossing our borders—we need better border security. If you hold those two views at the same time, there’s nowhere to go.”
While witnessing the skewed campaign finance system, he was reminded of what he discovered when he started working in the financial service industry, with its hidden fees and other money-moving tricks. The Super PAC system served as another dysfunctional eye-opener for him.
“With me having nothing to do with it, a Super PAC was formed to support my campaign,” he says. “People can give limitless amounts to support that campaign. Entities can contribute to that Super PAC without revealing their donors. They can’t legally be coordinated with the actual campaign, but they’re out there paying for negative ads.”
Fuel for Citizen-Led Reform
But the campaign trail also provided some hope, as Neal came to know people affiliated with various democracy reform organizations, including Jeff Clements, president of American Promise. In his book Neal brings together proposals from American Promise and other organizations, as well as his own observations, to lay the framework for long-term, sustainable change in American politics.
In the book he outlines two key systemic factors that shape his proposals and fuel the reform movement:
- A breakdown of the U.S. electoral system in which campaign spending continues to skyrocket thanks to big-money donors and less than 10% of congressional general elections are competitive, which adds weighted importance to primary elections that generally draw less than 20% of registered voters.
- A dysfunctional Congress, which has seen its public approval rate drop below 20% and the number of bills it is able to pass each session fall by half in the last 40 years.
While he acknowledges that achieving all 10 reforms will be a challenge, he points to the many reform organizations successfully building a citizen-led movement across the nation as evidence that the American people are ready to come together to fix the systemic issues that are stymying the function of our democratic process.
Neal says citizen leaders already involved with American Promise and other reform organizations need to draw others into the movement for change, so the reform groups can build their collective voice.
“We need to keep getting the message out by talking to everyone we know and using social media to promote a message of reform,” Neal says.