Ben and Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen used to dream up ice cream flavors. Now he visions a world without big money in politics

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By Jasper Craven for the Times Argus

In the early 20th century, the women’s suffrage movement in England began defacing pennies with the slogan, “Votes for Women.” This strategy, combined with other tactics, eventually worked, with women gaining the right to vote in 1928.

Now Ben Cohen, co-founder of Vermont’s renowned ice cream brand Ben & Jerry’s, is duplicating this strategy to press for a constitutional amendment curbing big money in politics.

“Using money to carry a message is the original viral marketing campaign,” Cohen said in an interview. “When you put a stamped dollar into circulation, about 900 people see it over two and a half years.”

Cohen’s organization, Stamp Stampede, sells rubber stamps with slogans to mark dollar bills. His favorite stamp catchphrase reads: “The system isn’t broken, it’s fixed.”

More than 18,000 of the stamps have been sold, and Cohen estimates that tens of millions of people have seen bills marked with his political message.

Ed Erickson, the Stamp Stampede campaign manager, said Cohen now always deals in cash in order to circulate as many stamped bills as possible.

“He’s got a big wad of stamped dollars, no plastic,” Erickson said. “He always talks to people about the issue during purchases, and they really connect to it.”

Cohen’s campaign comes in reaction to recent Supreme Court decisions loosening restrictions on election spending, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. These rulings struck down limits on independent campaign spending by corporations and unions and saw the rise of Political Action Committees, or so-called Super PACs.

The 2012 presidential elections saw more than 1,300 Super PACs sprout up, and more than $800 million was raised, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“Amending the Constitution is a long, difficult process, but it’s the only way to solve this problem once and for all,” Cohen said.

Cohen said politicians are often afraid to lead on sensitive issues like campaign finance. He said he hasn’t pushed any of Vermont’s congressional leaders to pass a constitutional amendment, but the delegation has still taken up Cohen’s call.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., held a hearing on the problems around massive election spending in June. And earlier this month, Leahy helped steer a constitutional amendment allowing states to set limits on campaign contributions out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs.

The proposed amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 19, was proposed last June by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and is co-sponsored by Sens. Leahy and Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.

Cohen donated $1,000 to Udall last year and has also supported Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., another prominent voice against big money in politics.

But his donations never top a couple thousand dollars, and he hasn’t contributed to Sanders since 2011 or Leahy since 2009, according to figures from the Federal Election Commission.

Cohen said he doesn’t put much of his money toward supporting politicians these days because he is discouraged by his past dealings in Washington.

“They are not leading, and they are not looking to rock the boat,” he said. “They will smile and say whatever you want to hear.”

Cohen, however, did acknowledge the Senate’s recent action on campaign finance as historic.

“We didn’t plan on getting to the stage of a floor vote for many years,” he said. “It’s a milestone.”

This is not the first foray into politics by the ice cream man. He has supported the Progressive Party for some time, and was one of the first prominent supporters of the Occupy movement.

He has also been an outspoken critic of plans to bring F-35 warplanes to the Burlington airport, a project supported by Sanders and Leahy. He has been a vocal opponent of the U.S. military budget for a number of years.

In 2011, Cohen supported a study by Robert Pollin, a professor of economics at UMass Amherst, which questioned whether military spending creates more jobs than spending in other areas, like the green economy or healthcare.

Pollin and other researchers found that $1 million spent on the military produced around 11 jobs, while the same amount could create 17 jobs in the green economy sector and 27 jobs in the education sector.

“The argument of massive military spending creating jobs has been completely undermined by this research,” Pollin said.

When Pollin was looking to expand his research on government debt last year, he turned to Cohen, who immediately offered his financial backing.

“He just sent a check and coupons for free ice cream, which my graduate students fought over,” Pollin said.

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