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Common Cause/Arkansas (CC/Arkansas) is a nonpartisan government watchdog group that has had a significant impact on the development of ethics and lobby disclosure legislation in the state, especially in the 1980s and 1990s.
Common Cause was one of the first of what political scientists call “public interest” lobbies in the United States, founded in 1970 by Robert Gardner, former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare during the Lyndon Johnson administration—although Gardner was a Republican. His idea was to set up a national grassroots organization that could utilize experienced lobbyists as well as volunteers to pressure the institutions of government to further open and “good government” and participatory democracy. The name “Common Cause” was selected, and to the surprise of many, it was an instant success, with some 100,000 dues-paying members signing up within six months of the new organization’s creation. Many of the early joiners were interested in the group’s focus on opposing the Vietnam War, but other “good government” policy interests developed early, such as transparency in governmental decision making and campaign finance reform.
After the success of the national organization, an effort was made to set up state organizations, following the same pattern of combining volunteers with experienced lobbyists. An Arkansas-Mississippi-Louisiana regional Common Cause group was organized in the early 1970s. One of the first campaigns by the fledgling group was to join with other organizations to promote the adoption of the proposed new Arkansas Constitution in 1980. The effort failed, but the experience of working with other groups such as the League of Women Voters was a useful one. A small group of volunteers eventually developed formal bylaws and an elected board, following guidelines established by the national Common Cause headquarters in Washington DC, and helped the national organization mobilize support for its legislative agenda in Congress. The organization gradually became more focused on state issues during the 1980s, developing an agenda that typically included lobbying and forming/joining coalitions to work for the establishment of an ethics commission and a code of ethics for elected officials, as well as lobbyist disclosure provisions. The organization also worked against the detailed casino gambling proposals that seemed to emerge constantly.
The 750 members of Common Cause/Arkansas formed their own separate organization in 1986, with Sybil Smith of Little Rock (Pulaski County) serving as its first executive director. Other early CC/Arkansas members were General Assembly staffer Rosalyn Snyderman and Little Rock labor attorney Scott Trotter, who became the group’s second executive director two years later. Major successes came in 1988 with a successful ballot issue establishing lobbyist disclosure and a code of ethics, and again in 1990 with the passage by a two-thirds majority of an initiated act establishing the Arkansas Ethics Commission.
A major reason for the eventual string of successes for CC/Arkansas was the leadership of Scott Trotter from 1988 to 2000 as the group’s executive director and then public affairs director. Trotter was active in drafting proposed legislation and initiatives, followed the political process in the State Capitol very closely, and made good use of the media to promote CC/Arkansas’s perspectives. He became so closely identified with CC/Arkansas that Governor Jim Guy Tucker demanded a meeting in the governor’s offices in 1995 with Trotter and the entire executive board to see if Trotter had a real organization behind him. CC/Arkansas continued its role as a government watchdog group by highlighting ethical and other lapses by the state’s chief executive during the long tenure of Governor Mike Huckabee, while also defending the Ethics Commission from efforts to weaken it during legislative sessions and promoting campaign finance reforms at the state and national levels.
CC/Arkansas has roughly 300 members, although about 650 people are considered “online activists” by the national Common Cause office.
For additional information:Common Cause.http://www.commoncause.org (accessed August 13, 2007).
Rothenberg, Lawrence S. Linking Citizens to Government: Interest Group Politics at Common Cause. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
Rowett, Michael. “State’s Laws on Lobbyists Flunk Review.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. May 15, 2003, p. 1B.
Wickline, Michael R. “Public Interest Group Opposes Electing Highway Officials.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. March 16, 2001, p. 11A.
Charles W. HartwigArkansas State University
Last Updated 8/19/2016
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