Q&A: A man who uncovers money in politics

Name: Daniel Newman
Age: 45
City: Berkeley
Position: President and co-founder of MapLight

J.: MapLight is based in Berkeley, but what does it do?

Daniel Newman: MapLight is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks money and information to U.S. politics. It takes all the money given to politicians and puts it together in one database to expose how they vote and patterns of influence that were never before possible to see.

J.: What sources do you use to gather your data?

DN: It comes from publicly available information that candidates are required to file, and other public record sources.

Daniel Newman

J.: Is your target audience journalists or regular citizens? Or both?

DN: Journalists, nonprofit groups and regular citizens. We provide insight into the river of money that affects everything government does, and isn’t often exposed.

J.: George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, and his Open Society Foundation is just one of your funders. Are you primarily funded by foundations?

DN: Both foundations and individual donors. We receive money from foundations across all ideologies, that all have an interest in shining a light on the influences on government.

J.: Most people are aware that soda companies spent enormous amounts to try to defeat the soda tax initiative from passing in Berkeley. What’s another example of the “river of money” funding a certain bill or a politician that you think most of our readers wouldn’t know about?

DN: In December, Congress passed a government spending bill that lets Wall Street banks gamble on risky investments with money that’s guaranteed by taxpayers. The language allowing them to do that was written by a Citigroup lobbyist. MapLight found that Democrats who voted for this bill received four times more money from big banks than Democrats who voted against it.

J.: You have a master’s degree in psychology from U.C. Berkeley and wrote several books about speech recognition software, as well as founded a speech recognition firm called Say I Can. How did you get from that to MapLight? Were you always interested in politics?

DN: I have always been interested in politics as a volunteer. And was frustrated with how money was corrupting issues — from climate change to education to taxes — and how people didn’t see the connection between our broken system of money-dominated politics and the specific issues that affect their daily lives. So I started putting together data on campaign contributions and votes and finding connections, and realized I could use my background in technology to expose the influence in a way beyond what had been done before.

J.: What was your Jewish background growing up? Does it figure into your life now?

DN: My Jewish identity has a big effect on what I do now. I grew up in Philadelphia, where we were  synagogue members, and I always participated in Hillel in college. I was always involved. The social justice aspects of Judaism really resonate for me. I met my wife in the New Leaders Project of the [S.F.-based] JCRC, which was a program on Judaism and social justice.

Judaism is an action-oriented religion, where what you do in the world is what’s important. Judaism encourages us to act driven by ethics and morality rather than selfish motivation. I also think the idea of humans being created in the Divine image resonates because it encourages each of us to think about the tremendous capability that we have, and what we can do in the world. It allows us to think about what’s possible in how we can most effectively help realize a better world with our own efforts — and in imagining the path that can be possible rather than following a standard life path, as in just following the crowd.

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J. Staff