How to Get Connected? First, Be Connected ...

MoveOn and the Coffee Party raise the stakes on corporate lobbying reform

When leaders of the local arm of – joined by the fledgling local Coffee Party organizers – drew up its agenda for a May 4 forum to address the influence of major corporations and big money on lawmakers, adding Luisa Handem's name to the speakers list was an obvious choice.

They knew that Handem, who joined MoveOn's advocacy efforts during Barack Obama's presidential campaign, wouldn't mince words in driving home the message that lobbyists still hold considerable sway in government, regardless of which party's in power. "AT&T owns Texas," Handem told the crowd of about 100 people, mostly white and middle-aged or older, as they munched on cold cuts and fruit at the AFL-CIO Hall. Those are strong words, but Handem, conservatively dressed in a business suit, does not come across as a knee-jerk anti-corporate liberal. Handem does know a thing or two about how the telephone and cable giants – under the guise of a nonprofit called Connected Nation – are siphoning off a good chunk of federal stimulus money set aside for building a national broadband network, one of Obama's campaign promises. Corporate lobbyists were supposed to be barred from the stimulus trough, but lobbyists are a clever lot, and few politicians, here or elsewhere, are able to survive an election without their financial support.

Handem is managing director of the Rural Mobile & Broadband Alliance (RuMBA), an Austin-based nonprofit on a mission to make sure every nook and cranny of America will eventually have access to affordable Internet service. RuMBA organized early last year while still riding on the high of Obama's vision of creating a "neutral" broadband network. But Handem and other Internet advocates now believe the major telecom players, via Connected Nation, will come to control how the national network will operate, because they've already secured at least a dozen state contracts (including in Texas) to do broadband mapping – the first phase of the massive undertaking.

RuMBA was among a handful of entities last year that competed for the Texas contract, but the selection process appeared flawed from the start, Handem told us. "The [request for proposal] looked like it had been written for Connected Nation," she said, and bidders were given an unusually tight window of time to submit their proposals. Last summer, the state announced that Connected Nation was the choice to receive more than $3 million in stimulus money to start its mapping process.

After Handem spoke, the crowd – which included representatives from a number of local advocacy and political organizations – huddled in groups to outline a set of goals, such as promoting campaign finance reform, holding lawmakers accountable for their actions, and calling for more transparency in government. It's worth noting that the people who turned out for the May 4 forum were not the usual players who turn out at these grassroots functions. Rather, the participants looked like those dedicated gray-haired voters campaign strategists depend on in every election.

"We're regular Americans who pretty much have had it," said Jacqueline Cotrell, who moderated the event. "We just want to take back our country from the big corporations, and we want to do more than stand on a street corner and wave signs."

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political activismcorporate lobbying, MoveOn, AT&T, Connected Nation, Rural Mobile & Broadband Alliance, RuMBA

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