The Atlantic Features Trevor Potter in: The New Price of American Politics

The Atlantic

Excerpt taken from the article.

Not since the Gilded Age has our politics been opened so wide to corporate contributions and donations from secret sources. And the new era of big money has just begun. Jim Bopp, its intellectual architect, believes this is a good thing—the more money, the better, he says. Reformers (and most voters) disagree. Their battle is over the most-basic ideas of our democracy; at stake—according to both sides—is either the revitalization of politics, or its final capture by the powerful.


In the parallel political world—a world in which more money, more anonymity, and more spending by non­candidates are bad things, dangerous to democracy—­the most plausible candidate to be Bopp's foil is the lawyer Trevor Potter. Potter is also a midwesterner (from neighboring Illinois) and a Republican; like Bopp, Potter got his earliest political experience volunteering for Barry Goldwater. But his own love of constitutional law, study of the Founders, and adventures in Republican politics sent him down a very different intellectual path. Potter was one of the leading lawyers behind the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as McCain-Feingold, the most significant campaign-finance law in 30 years. To a large extent, it is Potter's work that Bopp has been systematically gutting. "Jim has always been in the position of making arguments that other people thought were wild-eyed, went too far," Potter told me, a little ruefully. "And he's proved them wrong.

Potter came to campaign finance five years after Bopp, via a presidential campaign. He was a fledgling Washington lawyer when Vice President George H. W. Bush assigned his firm the task of setting up the exploratory committee for his 1988 run. Potter ended up as the campaign's deputy general counsel. During the primaries, he was stunned by how one of Bush's opponents, Pat Robertson, evaded the rules governing disclosure and spending, using his corporate plane and his Christian Broadcasting Network to campaign. Even though his guy won, Potter remained troubled. "For me," he said in one of several conversations over the past few months at his present D.C. firm, Caplin & Drysdale, "the takeaway was that the system wasn't working. Bush was playing by the rules, Robertson wasn't, and Robert­son got away with it." Where Bopp encountered a system that seemed devised to shut some groups out, Potter found one that seemed meant to treat candidates equally, but instead was being abused by some for unfair advantage. Bopp began suing the FEC, battering away from the outside; Potter surprised the Bush White House by saying he would like to become a commissioner at the FEC. He wanted to fix it.

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