Democracy Decoded: Trevor Potter’s Story

Trevor Potter posing with his arms folded in front of a wall and wearing an I Voted sticker on his lapel
Photo by Julia Davis/UVA Law School

Trevor Potter is going to be a guest on the first episode of CLC’s new podcast, Democracy Decoded, which debuts on March 17. Democracy Decoded is a podcast where we examine our government and discuss innovative ideas that could lead to a stronger, more transparent, accountable and inclusive democracy. You can subscribe to it here.

I’m Trevor Potter, and I'm the founder and president of Campaign Legal Center (CLC). My career in Washington has spanned a period in which our campaign finance laws have moved in a direction that has allowed for vastly larger amounts of money to flow into our political system – with each election cycle breaking the record set by the last. At the same time, transparency about who is spending money has decreased. These changes have contributed to many of the issues that American democracy faces today.

Let me share with you a bit about my story and perspective, which informs how I look at the problems we’re facing.

I started in the field as a young lawyer for the presidential campaign of President George H. W. Bush and ended up as a deputy general counsel of that campaign. I was then appointed a Commissioner of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by President Bush for the remainder of a six-year term. During my tenure there, I served as Chairman of the FEC.

Following my time at the FEC, I came to the conclusion that our campaign finance laws needed to be strengthened. I became an outside advisor to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), helping to create what became known as the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) – which is better known as McCain-Feingold. As a result of that connection with Sen. McCain, I later served as general counsel for Sen. McCain’s two presidential campaigns, in 2000 and 2008.

But it is a somewhat more limited engagement that made me a well-known figure to a wider audience. I had the distinction of being comedian Stephen Colbert’s actual lawyer for his super PAC on “The Colbert Report” — Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow — guiding it from its inception through to its inevitable end and appearing on a dozen episodes of “The Colbert Report” to talk with him and his audience about what he was planning.

Backing up a bit, my journey toward founding CLC started with my work on McCain-Feingold. After leaving the FEC, I put in a call to Sen. McCain’s office and said I would like to come and see him to talk about what was then an early draft of the legislation.

I had reached out to propose what I saw as necessary reforms to the bill from my perspective as a former FEC Commissioner. I favored a lot of what he was trying to do, but I had some suggestions for him as well as some constitutional concerns about portions of the draft. I was then invited to a meeting on the Hill that included not just Sen. McCain, but also Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and several staffers as well.

I launched into my pitch about why they needed to make changes to the bill. Sen. Feingold was not pleased by my intervention. I could see him leaning back in his large wing chair to the point I was genuinely concerned it was going to fall over backward.

He eventually said, “You know, this doesn't make sense. I'm a lawyer. I've looked at this, the best lawyers in my state have looked at it, and we're just wasting our time here.”

Then, Sen. McCain leaned forward and replied, “Russ, Russ, I don't know if Trevor's right or not, but we need to find out because I'm not going to spend all these years trying to pass this bill and then have it thrown out by the Supreme Court. So let's assemble a group and take a look.”

I will say I had enormous respect for Sen. McCain for having that very practical approach. He showed me that he was more invested in creating a strong, lasting bill than he was in his own ego.

Ultimately, we did assemble a group of outside constitutional law experts and others and came up with a different approach, which ended up being incorporated into the bill. It was the approach that the Supreme Court then upheld later on.

As we were working on finalizing McCain-Feingold, it became clear to me that it would be helpful to have a voice that looked at campaign finance issues from the perspective of how to make the system better on a nonpartisan basis. Most of the groups working in the area of campaign finance reform at that time were seen as Democratic or progressive, and we needed a nonpartisan voice capable of reaching a wider community.

I kept getting requests from foundations that were active in the field to talk with them about how to broaden the voices for campaign finance reform. Eventually, the Pew Charitable Trusts, which had been one of the funders of a lot of the research, came to me and said, “We would like to fund a new centrist nonpartisan entity with expertise in the field. Would you consider heading it?”

Let’s just say I eagerly agreed, and in 2002, CLC was born. We began with a staff of four or five and focused exclusively on campaign finance, defending the McCain-Feingold law in court and getting it implemented by the FEC. It is incredible to think of how we have grown since then. We now use law to advance democracy in general at the federal, state and local levels, covering a wide variety of issues like protecting the freedom to vote, ensuring that states draw fair maps, promoting a more ethical, transparent government and educating people about election processes.

Through my work on these issues, I have come to realize that the greatest danger to our democracy is people’s disillusionment. Too many Americans feel like their voices do not matter because special interests with a lot of money are able to rig the system in their favor.

Our democracy only works if citizens are invested in it and believe in the integrity of the process, hence why it is important to address wealthy special interest money in our politics. Voters have a right to know the way that money is being raised and spent and have disclosure of funding so that they can monitor donations to candidates.

Over the past two decades, it has become clear that there is still a long way to go before the promise of democracy is realized for every American. While I do not want to minimize the challenges we face, I truly do believe that by fighting for transparency and accountability, we can create a government that works better for us all. 

Trevor is CLC's founder and one of the country's top election lawyers.
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