Buying of the President

Published — September 6, 2015 Updated — November 2, 2015 at 4:36 pm ET

9 things to know about Lawrence Lessig

Emma Schwartz/Center for Public Integrity


Update, Nov. 2, 2015: Lawrence Lessig has decided to end his 2016 presidential bid.

Yearning for a most unconventional presidential candidate?

Then you’ll love Lawrence Lessig, who promised to run if his exploratory effort raised $1 million by Labor Day. (It did.)

The Harvard University professor and political campaign finance reformer enters the Democratic primary pledging to — if elected — resign the presidency as soon as possible.

Say what?

Indeed, Lessig says he’d serve as what he’s calling a “referendum president” — occupying the White House only as long as it takes to win passage of a bill that would, among other things, reform the nation’s elections and end congressional district gerrymandering.

Once accomplished, he’d join Richard Nixon as the only other president to quit, tossing the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. over to his yet-to-be-named vice president. (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jon Stewart and Joe Biden are on his short list.)

“Every issue — from climate change to gun safety, from Wall Street reform to defense spending — is tied to this ‘one issue.’ Achieving citizens equality in America is our one mission,” Lessig says.

While Lessig enjoys a passionate following, he faces both the political juggernaut that is Hillary Clinton and another populist campaign finance reformer in Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont who, of late, has watched his campaign crowds grow and poll numbers rise.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, former Sen. Jim Webb are also running, while Vice President Joe Biden continues to think about it.

Here are nine things to know about Lessig’s financial and political background:

  • Lessig has donated at least $52,000 to federal candidates and committees over the years. Almost all are Democratic.
  • Among the recipients of Lessig’s campaign contributions: President Barack Obama; Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John Edwards and Al Franken; and ex-Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
  • At least one Republican got cash from Lessig — 2012 presidential candidate Buddy Roemer, who only took donations of $100 or less.
  • Not argle-bargle: Lessig once clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who vehemently supported the court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision.
  • Among the numerous books Lessig has written: “One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic” and “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It”
  • With great fanfare, Lessig last year created MayDay PAC, the “super PAC to end all super PACs,” now run by reform activist Zephyr Teachout.
  • The performance of MayDay PAC has been underwhelming. It spent about $10.7 million during 2014, and only two of eight candidates it backed won their races. There are also more super PACs than ever.
  • Top 2014 donors to Lessig’s MayDay PAC included LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman ($1 million), Napster founder Sean Parker ($500,000) and billionaire businesswoman Pat Stryker ($300,000).
  • A dry well? During the first six months of 2015, Lessig’s MayDay PAC spent ($315,997) more than twice what it raised ($150,746). It ended June with about $371,000 on hand.

Sources: Center for Public Integrity reporting,, Federal Election Commission,

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