By Alexander Burns
Seven Democratic presidential candidates, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have promised that their first legislation as president would be an ambitious clean-government bill, earning their campaigns an influential reform group’s stamp of approval.
End Citizens United, a grass-roots advocacy group that played a key role in the 2018 midterm elections, said the seven candidates had vowed to prioritize ethics and campaign finance reform in a commitment the group is calling the “Reform First” pledge. The group said it would begin raising money for all seven candidates online and highlight their campaign activities on social media.
In addition to Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg, the list of supportive Democrats includes three senators — Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado — as well as former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.
The breadth of support in the Democratic presidential field for the pledge, unveiled on the eve of the second primary debate, shows how significant themes of government integrity and fighting corruption have become in the 2020 race.
“We need sweeping anti-corruption and voting rights reform to make voting easier and more secure and to ensure our democracy works for everyone,” Ms. Klobuchar said in a statement. “As president, it will be the first bill I send to Congress.”
Mr. O’Rourke said he favored legislation to ban contributions from political action committees, lower barriers to voting, end gerrymandering and impose new restrictions on lobbying. “In order to overcome the greatest challenges we face,” he said in a statement, “we must first fix our democracy and return power to the people.”
The imprimatur of End Citizens United, while short of an endorsement, could be an important symbolic and financial asset in the Democratic primary. The group has more than four million members around the country, including half a million donors, and raised nearly $9 million for candidates in last year’s elections. During that campaign, it urged candidates to reject contributions from corporate political action committees, and helped persuade Democratic congressional leaders to introduce a reform bill as the first legislation of the new House majority.
The group — which takes its name from the 2010 Supreme Court decision, despised by liberals, that drastically loosened regulations on campaign funding —has also provoked consternation from some Democratic elected officials, who argue that the party should not relinquish certain streams of funding, like corporate PAC money, when Republicans refuse to do the same.
Officials with End Citizens United said its fund-raising and promotional activities for the presidential candidates would begin immediately.
Tiffany Muller, the president of the group, said getting involved in the presidential race was an essential next step. Calling President Trump “the most corrupt president in American history,” she said the seven candidates who had taken End Citizen United’s 2020 pledge had shown a distinctive commitment to the group’s agenda.
“Committing to ‘Reform First’ shows the American people you’re serious about cleaning up corruption,” Ms. Muller said. “These candidates uniquely understand that reform is the essential first step to accomplishing the progressive change that America needs.”
For many of the candidates who signed on to the End Citizens United pledge, ethics and government reform have long been central campaign issues. Ms. Warren, for instance, promised months ago, in a February interview on MSNBC, that her first major legislation as president would be an anti-corruption bill. Ms. Gillibrand unveiled a plan in May to overhaul campaign finance by giving every voter $600 that they could donate to candidates. And Mr. Bullock entered the Democratic race with a video that highlighted his record of fighting undisclosed “dark money” campaign contributions in Montana.
The “Reform First” pledge came together quietly over a period of months, as End Citizens United strategists met with more than a dozen campaigns to lay out the parameters and argue that it was a politically advantageous space to occupy in the primary. In a PowerPoint presentation reviewed by The New York Times, the group made the case that both Mr. Trump and former President Barack Obama won their elections in part because they were perceived as tougher on corruption than their opponents.
In 2020, the End Citizens United presentation predicted, “the candidate trusted to change the rigged system will win.”
“Showing you are serious about reform is essential to gaining voters’ trust,” the group said in its presentation, “especially independents, people who live in pivot counties and presidential swing voters.”
Few liberal advocacy groups have taken sides in the primary so far, and the handful of endorsements up to this point have been awarded for unique reasons. For instance, the International Association of Firefighters backed former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., with whom the union has long enjoyed a close relationship, and the Victory Fund, a gay rights group, endorsed Mr. Buttigieg, the first gay candidate to seek the Democratic nomination.
End Citizens United said other Democrats could be added later to its list of approved candidates. Most of the 2020 presidential candidates have been supportive of new ethics and fund-raising regulations, though some have previously suggested their first legislation might focus on other areas of policy. Senator Kamala Harris of California, for instance, has consistently spotlighted a middle-class tax cut as her congressional priority, while Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has made “Medicare for All” legislation the foundation of his campaign.
What the End Citizens United-approved candidates share is the view that any other policy initiative might be futile without having a drain-the-swamp law in place first.
“If we want to pass progressive legislation like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, common-sense gun violence prevention, and comprehensive immigration reform,” Ms. Gillibrand said in a statement, “we have to start by breaking the chokehold corporate special interests have on Washington.”