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Demanding better: A Florence nonprofit is trying to fix democracy with help from the likes of Jennifer Lawrence

  • Reed Schimmelfing, center right, speaks beside Leslie Gold-Barkman, from left, Lee Goss and Josh Silver at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Josh Silver, who is the founder of Represent.Us, speaks at the Represent.Us office in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Leslie Gold-Barkman speaks beside Lee Goss at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lee Goss speaks beside Leslie Gold-Barkman at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Josh Silver, right, who is the founder of Represent.Us, speaks beside Leslie Gold-Barkman, Lee Goss and Reed Schimmelfing at the Represent.Us office in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Josh Silver, who is the founder of Represent.Us, speaks at the Represent.Us office in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Xiao Xi works at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Adom Balcom, front, works among others at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Helen Humphreys works at a computer, left, behind an office window covered with pictures, signs and newspaper clippings, at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alexandra Wardlaw, center, finishes the painting of a banner that was also worked on by Laura Fanatico, left, and Ellen Moorhouse at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Alexandra Wardlaw paints a banner at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Posters by Shepard Fairey line the office walls at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephanie Slysz works at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dan Krassner speaks at Represent.Us in Florence, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Friday, November 02, 2018

FLORENCE – Josh Silver has a big goal: He wants to pass 24 anti-gerrymandering, ranked choice voting and campaign finance reforms with Represent.Us, a Florence-based nonprofit that works on anti-corruption policies across the country.

“24 states, 24 major state laws by 2024,” said Silver, the director and co-founder of the non-partisan nonprofit. “Which is ambitious as hell — I get it. But we think the vision has to be commensurate with the gravity of the crisis."

The crisis that he’s referring to is a political one, “a broken system” — which Represent.Us credits to, among other problems, gerrymandering, a polarized two-party system and large donations steering politics. 

In other words, Represent.Us says: Democracy is failing.

“Those with the biggest wallets — not necessarily the best ideas — prevail,” Silver said, sitting in his office overlooking the Mill River, inside the Nonotuck Mill building on a recent afternoon. A large mason jar of water sat on his desk. Across from him on a wall were prints reading “wake up” and “resist.” 

Founded in 2012, the group’s first big victory was in Tallahassee, Florida in 2014. Represent.Us had initiated a referendum that set caps on campaign donations and created an ethics code with measures such as conflict-of-interest rules — and it passed. From there, the nonprofit has grown. When it started, they had just six staff; currently, they have 22 employees in the Florence office, plus a dozen elsewhere. They have 44 active local chapters in states across the country, and their budget this year is more than $5 million, Silver said.

They’ve also attracted a fair amount of press, with mentions in The New York Times, NPR and Vanity Fair, as well as a star-studded list of celebrities who support their cause: Jennifer Lawrence, Kerry Washington and Orlando Bloom, to name a few.

Despite their flash online, their headquarters has a decidedly homey feel with hardwood floors, string lights, exposed brick walls and around a dozen people in their 20s and 30s typing away on computers.  

Currently, Represent.Us is either strongly backing or leading seven campaigns across the country. They’re pushing anti-gerrymandering re-districting efforts in Colorado, Missouri, Utah and Michigan. The Dakotas have been a major area of focus as well, where they are working on campaign finance and ethics rules. 

Among other services, they provide campaigns with access to policy and digital experts on their team.  

In Missouri, for example, the group is supporting Amendment 1, a proposal that would put limits on campaign donations, cut back on gerrymandering, and make legislators wait two years until working as lobbyists. Reprsent.Us political director Dan Krassner said the organization helped draft the policy and canvass in support of a “yes” vote on the amendment.

“I’m encouraged and find hope in these state and local campaigns,” Krassner said. 

Locally, the western Massachusetts chapter supports a “yes” vote on Question 2, whether the state should create a commission that would suggest an amendment to Citizens United vs FEC. Volunteers helped collect signatures to get the question on the ballot, and recently they teamed up with their Boston chapter to create a voter guide, said Reed Schimmelfing, the western Massachusetts chapter leader.

The local chapter is also fired up about the possibility of ranked choice voting — a system where voters can rank their candidates according to preference instead of just choosing one. 

“There’s a big tendency to dismiss an independent candidate because, oh, they’re not going to win anyway, so you’re just wasting your vote,” Schimmelfing explained.

Ranked choice voting could change that.

Cambridge uses the system, and it passed in Maine in 2016, Schimmelfing said, adding that he likes to point out such examples to people when tabling for the organization.

Celebrity power

In addition to the local volunteers, Represent.Us has celebrity power. Forty-one names are listed on the group’s “cultural council.” Duties on the council include hosting fundraisers and other events, speaking at schools, or appearing in videos that promote state campaigns. In one video, actor Ed Helms, of TV’s “The Office” and the movie “The Hangover,” urges Michiganders to vote “yes” on an anti-gerrymandering proposition in the state, while Jennifer Lawrence speaks in another video about voting for Amendments Y and Z, a similar proposal in Colorado.

Why celebrities? They make an impact. “We use (them) mainly to create great content that is less expensive to market because the celebrities market themselves,” Silver said. “For a nonprofit without a big marketing budget, celebrity videos can be essential.” 

The group did a poll in states they are working in, like the Dakotas, and found that Jennifer Lawrence had a higher approval rating than any politician in the poll in some states. The celebrity connections can be traced back to Adam McKay, whose credits include co-writer and director of “Anchorman” and “The Big Short.”

“He came out of producing, writing and directing ‘The Big Short,’ and he had his lightbulb moment as many people do,” Silver said. “He was like, ‘holy s--t, The Big Short — the economic collapse, it was all about the money. It was all about the broken system.’ He was like, ‘This is the only issue that matters.’ ”

McKay and Silver had previously been friends as early bloggers on Huffington Post, where they wrote about the news media. 

“Arianna Huffington introduced us, and it just went from there,” he recalled.

They had been out of touch for years, Silver said, but they rekindled their friendship via email. McKay joined the board of directors, and from there, as Silver put it, “it just snowballed.” 

While D.C. might seem a natural choice for the organization, that’s one once place Silver didn't consider.

“D.C. is where political reform goes to die. This has to be a bottom-up movement that originates outside of the beltway, and so it’s here,” Silver said.

“We’re about everything that D.C. is not,” he added.

The group is based in Florence because Silver lives there. He grew up in Ashfield and Shelburne, and moved back to Northampton in 2002. Now, he lives near the office with his two children and wife, Nunia Mafi Silver, a former high school teacher who’s now in school for social work.

Before starting Represent.Us, Silver started another nationally reaching nonprofit based in the Valley called Free Press, a group that works on media reform.

“So I’m a serial entrepreneur, a nonprofit entrepreneur,” Silver said. 

He attributes his better-the-world ambitions to a harrowing experience he had in his 20s. When he was 26 and backpacking in Peru with his friend, robbers shot them, killing his friend and wounding Silver. Outside magazine’s founding editor dove into the story in a 1995 issue of the publication. 

“It definitely shaped my whole worldview to focus on things that matter,” Silver said. 

And in his view, anti-corruption — initiatives like stopping gerrymandering and putting more campaign fiance and ethics laws in place — is the key issue, the “fulcrum” that will help solve other problems, like health care, education and poverty. 

“This is why we’re in this dystopian political moment that we’re in today,” he said. “We’re in it, the primary reasons, are these unsexy structural failures in our democracy … We’re actually getting to the root of  the problem.”

Silver, who early voted at City Hall, is hopeful. He plans to be in Colorado election night for the anti-gerrymandering ballot measure there, and he said he’ll also be watching every one of the dozen-plus campaigns that Represent.Us has been actively leading or supporting this season.

“If we win more than half of them, it’s the biggest year for democracy reform in America,” he said. “Ever.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com