Meet the Wonk - 4

There's something tough and fearless and wildly energetic about Scott Harshbarger, the president of nonpartisan citizens' lobbying organization Common Cause, and this happy trinity of qualities in its leader is especially fortuitous right now.

wonk (n): one who is well-versed in policy arcana

Scott Harshbarger

President, Common Cause

Age: 60

Previous job: Two-term Massachusetts attorney general, from 1991 to 1999

Favorite hobby: Big Elvis Presley fan — hes even donned the white suit on occasion.

Law professor: Has taught at Boston University Law School, Harvard Law School — his alma mater — and Northeastern Law School

Theres something tough and fearless and wildly energetic about Scott Harshbarger, the president of nonpartisan citizens lobbying organization Common Cause, and this happy trinity of qualities in its leader is especially fortuitous right now.

With the U.S. entering a war after the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people, the focus in the country at large and in Washington, D.C., has shifted away from a buffet of discrete causes — such as campaign finance reform, broadband deregulation or stem cell research — to the single dish of national defense.

National defense is not central to Common Causes mission, but citizen involvement is. The organization has been closely tied to the campaign finance reform issue for several years, and under Harshbargers leadership was just starting to branch into technology policy when the terrorists struck.

At a midmorning meeting in Common Causes downtown Washington offices about a week after the attacks, the gravelly voiced Harshbarger rallied a knot of about 20 activist warriors to split up into groups, hole up in conference rooms and brainstorm about Common Causes future. With its bread-and-butter issue — campaign finance reform — shelved for the foreseeable future, how should the organization proceed? How should it respond directly to the terrorist attacks?

"The first reaction that many groups have is, Well, now were irrelevant. . . . All of our issues will somehow be pushed into the backseat," he says.

Like so much in the country right now, Common Causes future is uncertain. But one thing is for sure: Harshbarger plans to continue pushing the organization deeper into technology policy. For now, his interests in particular are the governance of the Internet — through the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which oversees the Domain Name System — and electronic government, which promises to deliver to citizens increasingly more interaction with the governments they support.

"The entrepreneurial genius, the innovative ability, the energy that has been displayed in this interactive world — cyberspace — is spectacular, and the question is: Do the traditional values apply?" asks Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general and Democratic nominee for governor of Massachusetts.

The terrorist attacks, he says, "demonstrate more than anything that we are all in this together. What the crisis shows is that [the Internet] is a great connector. Its one of the ways to facilitate the very thing people suddenly realized they wanted more than anything else: to have contact with each other, to find ways to be involved in each others lives, and, of course, to share the pain and suffering — but also to demonstrate the resiliency that exists here."

One of Common Causes first public responses to the attacks was to join with the In Defense of Freedom Coalition, a hastily formed alliance of left-leaning civil liberties watchdogs and right-wing groups that fear the spread of Big Brother. Immediately after the Sept. 11 strikes, lawmakers started passing or calling for legislation that would erode civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. Among the potential civil liberties casualties: privacy, both online and off.

Harshbarger, an evangelist for activism, believes the crisis will compel people to get more involved in government, and in civil society at large, including issues of technology policy. And when they do, he says, the roughly 200,000 members of Common Cause will be there to make sure their voices are heard.

"Its a defining time for this country," he says. "How we handle this, how we all respond. Nobody is immune from this anymore."