Local farmer fights for campaign finance reform from SLO to Washington

William Ostrander is coordinating Citizens Congress 2014 to organize efforts on campaign finance reform.
William Ostrander is coordinating Citizens Congress 2014 to organize efforts on campaign finance reform. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A local activist has felt so strongly about the need for campaign finance reform that he has visited the offices of 65 U.S. congressional leaders to discuss the topic. 

This week, San Luis Obispo farmer William Ostrander is organizing a group of activists, scholars, legislators and political experts to form a national strategy to combat what he believes are major inequalities about money in politics — and public apathy about the issue. 

Ostrander — a 54-year-old cattle farmer, developer and former actor who appeared in the horror film “Christine” — will kick off a bipartisan effort Monday to fight “the corruptive influence of money in our political system.” 

His project, Citizens Congress 2014, will bring together a broad mix of people and groups, including Coalition for Open Democracy, for workshops on finance reform. 

Over the course of four days, they’ll seek to formulate the best methods for creating citizen unity on a variety of initiatives. 

The schedule includes a free talk with an expert panel at Cal Poly on Monday night that’s open to the public.

“Unfortunately, it costs an enormous amount of money to run for political office, as much as $11 million for a Senate campaign,” Ostrander said. “Ninety-one percent of Americans believe money has a corrosive influence in elections. But many will shy away from getting involved because it’s so complex and multifaceted. They say it’s ‘too overwhelming’ to take on.”

The workshops’ organizers hope to produce an effective movement on a variety of topics: creating the public message of “our government” versus “the government,” holding a national elections finance awareness event, and advancing constitutional amendments and legislative changes. 

Ostrander also wants to see rule changes in the Federal Election Commission and in the Securities and Exchange Commission to limit big-donation spending.

Ostrander, a 16-year county resident, operates a cattle ranch on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo and doesn’t have a political background. 

His past work has included Hollywood acting, most of it in the 1980s, when he appeared on the show “Knots Landing” and as a character in “Christine,” based on the novel by Stephen King. 

But Ostrander didn’t find acting satisfying, and he began doing humanitarian work in Africa. He also spent 33 years helping young people in the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization. As a contractor, he built the government building in Paso Robles. 

The inspiration for his political activism was the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which ruled that the government cannot prohibit political spending by corporations in candidate elections.

In order to win an election, Ostrander said politicians must dedicate too much of their time raising money — as much as three out of five workdays, according to surveys — leaving their civic duties to the public behind.

“I have a very visceral response to blatant inequalities,” Ostrander said. “I act out of impulse to try to stick up for those who are being taken advantage of.”

Ostrander also says the system allows select wealthy donors to have too much political influence and access — even keeping otherwise unviable candidates afloat in an election through campaign donation windfalls. 

A recent example of pandering to wealthy donors was a meet-and-greet organized by billionaire donor Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino owner, Ostrander said. 

Adelson invited possible Republican presidential candidates for the 2016 election to Las Vegas as he decided whom to support. 

Candidates flocked to meet with him, displaying the power of a wealthy donor and the pandering that goes on for money, Ostrander said.

“The bulk of campaign dollars are coming from a small group of extremely wealthy people,” Ostrander said. “It’s only natural that politicians will curry favor with those people. The interests of the average person that may not even have $200 to give get left behind.”

Ostrander said he hopes for a streamlined approach to activism that will change how the public views the possibility of campaign finance reform — helping to close the gap between the rich and poor, and reducing the power of corporations to influence elections. 

The San Luis Obispo activist said he doesn’t have any current plans to run for political office, though some have asked him whether he will, and he has considered it to potentially advance his cause, he said.

Some have called Ostrander’s mission “quixotic,” but he counters with historical examples of political hurdles overcome by united citizenry — starting with early American independence in bucking “taxation without representation” and more recently, the civil rights movement.

“I hate to use this as an example, but the Second Amendment stirs up so much debate and passion, but people don’t realize this issue, campaign finance, has far greater impacts on their lives,” Ostrander said. “It permeates our society in so many different ways. It’s the gateway issue to restoring democracy.” 

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