Can Lawrence Lessig Give Hillary Clinton a Run for Her Money?

Lawrence Lessig for president
If he can crowd-fund a million dollars by Labor Day, Lawrence Lessig says, he will join Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley in seeking the Democratic nomination.

This week, another possible candidate nosed onto the Democratic field. The ultimate reform candidate, Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says if he can crowd-fund a million dollars by Labor Day, he will join Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley in seeking the Democratic nomination. What he will not do, though, is stay in office one single day beyond the day he achieves his goal of busting up what he calls Washington's "lobbying-industrial-congressional complex."

Lessig, who also helms the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, is proposing himself as a "referendum candidate," a man who will do one thing—unrig the "rigged system"—then move out of the White House and hand off the keys to his vice president, whether or not his term is up. His Citizen Equality Act 2017 aims at three main accomplishments: fund campaigns with a broader public base so candidates are not taking money from a small number of billionaires, end gerrymandering and end voter suppression.

Lessig, 54, a bespectacled South Dakota native who is one part Don Quixote and one part the Little Dutch Boy with his finger in the dike, has been heroically jousting with Big Money for a while. His scathing TED talk about reclaiming the republic has garnered more than 1.2 million views. In May 2014, he created the Mayday Super PAC, a bipartisan, crowd-funded, $10 million "super PAC to end all super PACs" to fund candidates for Congress who promised to support financing reform (the candidates Mayday supported all lost in the last cycle). He has since critiqued Hillary Clinton's fundraising and reform tendencies.

We caught up with Lessig by email, on a plane to Utah, where he answered nine questions,

Since you announced on Tuesday, have you raised any money? How can people donate?

In the first 24 hours of the campaign, over 1,500 supporters pledged more than $125,000. We're well on our way to reaching our $1 million goal by Labor Day.

People can donate via our website, For the latest figures, see

You've said that your movement must attract billionaires willing to give up power, the way the civil rights movement attracted white support even though it meant giving up some power. Do you have any billionaires in your corner yet, or are you courting any?

I wouldn't say I have met a random sample of billionaires, but every billionaire who has spoken to me is a billionaire who thinks the current system is corrupt.

Your critics say you will take votes away from Bernie Sanders, whose position is close to yours. Does this trouble you?

The question is not whether we have the same views. The question is which strategy is more likely to bring about the reform we both think is necessary. I fear an ordinary president can't win this issue—certainly if he or she doesn't make it first. But if I am president, we will win this equality, and when we do, the next president—Bernie, Hillary or someone else—will have a chance to govern.

Why didn't you run as a Republican?

Democrats run as Democrats. But I do hope a Republican runs as a referendum candidate in the Republican primary, as well.

It's been said that the Citizens United case is more damaging to the Republican Party because big money can keep unelectable candidates in the primary races longer. Do you agree or disagree and why?

I do think that Republicans are coming to see the damage done by the currently corrupt system for funding campaigns. I am hopeful that convinces them to join the cause of reform.

In the October debate, what are the first questions you would like to ask Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley?

Can they end the corrupt inequality of this system first, and if they can't, how can they expect us to believe that any of the other things that are talking about are even possible?

Since you plan to resign the presidency after you achieve your goal, your choice of vice president is crucial. Have you discussed the position with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?


When and where were you when you decided to run for president, and who did you tell first?

On a lake in New Hampshire. My wife.

Not to be cynical, but was there ever a time when money didn't determine the outcome of American presidential elections, and if so, when was it?

Money has always been important, but we have not seen this kind of concentrated influence since Teddy Roosevelt.