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Lessig’s PAC Raises Millions, Despite Low Support from Harvard

Following yesterday’s discussion about Professor Lawrence Lessig’s new book, the author (left) converses with Professor David Gergen (right),  Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
Following yesterday’s discussion about Professor Lawrence Lessig’s new book, the author (left) converses with Professor David Gergen (right), Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.
By Tyler S. B. Olkowski, Crimson Staff Writer

Mayday, a political action committee launched by Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, has raised over $6 million since the spring, according to Federal Election Commission filings from August, and the PAC claims on its website that it has raised nearly $2 million more since then.

The PAC, which Lessig created to curb the influence of money in politics, will distribute funds to candidates who support campaign finance reform efforts.

Little of that money, however, has come from Harvard affiliates. According to FEC filings, donors who reported themselves as employees of the University donated just over $5,000 to the PAC—a figure that excludes Lessig’s own contributions.

Lawrence Lessig, left, has raised over $6 million for his Mayday PAC since the spring.
Lawrence Lessig, left, has raised over $6 million for his Mayday PAC since the spring. By Robert J Lemos

By contrast, former Law School professor and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren received substantial support from Harvard employees and affiliates. According to her campaign committee’s last filing in August, Warren received $312,550 from donors affiliated with Harvard since kicking off her campaign in 2011, according to Opensecrets, a campaign transparency database.

Lessig has long advocated for relaxed legal restrictions of copyrights and trademarks, but more recently shifted his focus toward the potential corrupting force of money in politics, which he views as a problem that must be solved before any other political challenges can be addressed.

Mayday has received contributions from over 60,000 donors. It relies on a match-contingent system: when a funding goal is reached, wealthy donors match the cumulative donations. For example, Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman, the co-founders of PayPal and LinkedIn respectively, have helped Lessig match the thousands of small donations that the PAC has collected.

Although it was born on Harvard’s campus, Mayday has generated most of its buzz and donations online, said Andrew Sellars, a fellow at the Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic who contributed to the PAC.

“The conversation seems to be happening a lot in the internet policy space, where Lessig has been a prominent figure for so long,” Sellars said.

In total, the PAC aims to raise $12 million and support five candidates, with three additional candidates to be named in the coming weeks, according to the PAC’s website.

Yet Mayday’s ability to get its chosen candidates elected is still up for debate.

The PAC chose an underdog in the New Hampshire Republican primary, Jim Rubens, who lost to former Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown in a lopsided race, despite the $1.6 million that the PAC funneled to his campaign. By contrast, Mayday picked up wins in smaller congressional primaries in Arizona and North Carolina.

For Kennedy School of Government professor Jane J. Mansbridge, who said she gave the PAC money “right out of her retirement account,” Lessig’s mission is incredibly important.

“My motivation [to give] is entirely a belief in the mission,” said Mansbridge, who knows Lessig only in a professional context. “I respect his intelligence greatly and his political savvy.”

—Staff writer Tyler S. Olkowski can be reached at tyler.olkowski@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @OlkowskiTyler.

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