Adam Lioz '98

In the Public Interest
June 1, 2002

 

Adam Lioz '98

While many political "reformers" are basking in the recent triumph of a campaign finance bill in the Senate, Adam Lioz '98 sees the legislation as a step backward--and has been very public in his concern. As a specialist in government and election issues at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), Lioz wrote a March op-ed piece in The New York Times criticizing Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold for supporting a ban on soft-money (directed to political causes or parties) that allows wealthy individuals to contribute double what they now can in hard money.

"While paying lip service to reform, the current McCain-Feingold bill actually boosts the clout of wealthy donors and their candidates," Lioz wrote. "Congress and the American people should reject this unfair compromise."

Lioz isn't the first PIRG representative to write about reform. The organization began in 1971 as a set of state-based public-interest research groups, "citizen-funded organizations that advocate for the public interest," according to PIRG's website. Among the goals of these state PIRGs was to uncover and end public health threats, protect the environment, and foster democratic government.

In 1983, U.S. PIRG was formed to serve as a watchdog in the nation's capital, as PIRGs have worked to safeguard the public interest in state capitals. As a "democracy advocate" for U.S. PIRG, Lioz lobbies to get big money out of politics, educates the public about campaign finance and electoral reform, and helps the state PIRGs do the same.

Lioz didn't plan to go into politics. "I always knew that I wanted to give something back to the world...but I didn't know how," he says.

An influential course at Duke--history professor Lawrence Goodwyn's "Comparative Social Movements" seminar the first semester of his senior year--helped him figure out his calling. "The class exposed me to the idea that our democracy doesn't work properly, and that special interests have an incredible amount of control."

After reading two books for class, Goodwyn's own A Populist Moment and Who Will Tell the People? by William Greider, Lioz says he was "outraged" by the failings of the American political system. Around the same time, representatives from PIRG came to Duke to advertise for potential applicants. Lioz went to the group's information session and joined PIRG as part of their Fellows program, which gives students just out of school experience to work as advocates and organizers.

For the two-year fellowship, Lioz moved to Philadelphia to work as a preservation associate. While he concentrates on democracy issues, PIRG largely focuses on environmental protection and consumer safety, including global warming and endangered species, the Superfund, genetically modified food, ATM fees, and health care.

As a fellow, Lioz worked extensively in the summer months with state PIRGs, and during his second summer raised $100,000 for North Carolina PIRG, directing the office in Chapel Hill.

Lioz says while U.S. PIRG did not succeed legislatively in defeating McCain-Feingold, they have begun to get their message out. "Phantom Fixes," a report by U.S. PIRG released to the media, was covered by the Associated Press and in USA Today, and the day of the vote, his Times piece appeared.

In Lioz's opinion, before September 11, PIRG was beginning to win the debate over the country's energy policy in the court of public opinion. (PIRG says the policy is "dangerous" and "doesn't deliver.") "For a long time after 9/11, it wasn't acceptable to criticize the president," even as the administration launched what Lioz describes as a "quiet attack on the environment."

As for his hope to see more drastic campaign finance reform, Lioz says he will continue on. "We want to show the public why this was a bad idea, why we need to not be celebrating this but going back and fighting even harder."