About the Network


Overview  |  Concept and Origins  |  How We Do Our Work  |  Staff   


The Midwest Democracy Network is an alliance of political reform advocates committed to improving democratic institutions in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. Some partners are state-based advocacy groups and some are national research and policy institutions; some focus on specific reform issues, while others work on a broader democracy agenda.  Several academics also participate in the Network.  

Nonetheless, all participants in the Network share the belief that our fundamental democratic values and principles – especially those that speak to honesty, fairness, transparency, accountability, citizen participation, competition, respect for constitutional rights and the rule of law, and the public’s need for reliable information – must be continuously reinforced and fiercely protected against those who see politics as a means to promote narrow interests rather than the common good.


Toward these ends, participating organizations seek to reduce the influence of money in politics, keep our courts fair and impartial, promote open and transparent government, create fair processes for drawing congressional and legislative districts, guarantee the integrity of our election systems, promote ethical government and lobbying practices, and democratize the media.


The Midwest Democracy Network is currently governed by a Steering Committee which includes the executive directors of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, TakeAction Minnesota, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and the legislative and money in politics project director of Ohio Citizen Action.


For a full list of current participants, please visit the Partner Organizations page.



Concept and Origins


In recent years, the demands on state-based reform organizations for policy, technical and legal assistance have steadily mounted, and the leaders of these groups have found themselves increasingly reaching out to, communicating with, and sharing policy and strategic ideas with their counterparts in neighboring states. 


As a result, a growing sense of community among Midwest reformers developed over time and eventually led to discussions about the need, feasibility and potential benefits of creating a regional forum or clearinghouse. 


The Midwest Democracy Network was created approximately in 2005 to meet this need and by a desire to:


·         Create an amplified collective voice for democracy reform across the Great Lakes region, thereby diminishing the extent to which any member group is considered a “voice in the wilderness” and capitalizing on the notion that there is strength in numbers.


·         Establish a regional focus on consistent reform themes, demonstrating how the problems plaguing our democracy at the state and local level cross state boundaries and identifying some common solutions while maintaining the autonomy of state-based groups to develop remedies uniquely suited to the challenges facing their states. This structure allows state-based groups to use examples of progress or reform breakthroughs in one state in the region to create momentum that can inspire policymakers to action in their own states.


·         Create a broad-based reform umbrella that allows a variety of organizations to partner on specific projects, both formally and informally. The overarching goal is to provide an outlet for the many Midwest-based groups to gather and share information and to act in unison to promote good governance in the region without imposing on each organization’s individual autonomy.


·         Facilitate communication and collaboration among reform groups across state lines. There is much member groups can learn from each other by sharing both policy ideas and strategic approaches, but ready opportunities for such exchange are woefully lacking.


·         Provide opportunities for Midwest advocates to avail themselves of cutting edge scholarship and legal research, which they can apply to their on-the-ground efforts.


·         Create economies of scale permitting groups to do work collectively and regionally that none of them could likely do alone in their respective states. There are many examples of critically important work – from public opinion polling to large-scale research projects on redistricting or monitoring of local television programming – that no one state-based group can consistently muster the financial and human resources to take on. But working together through the Midwest Democracy Network, it is possible to do such work for the benefit of member groups and the constituencies they serve throughout the region.



How We Do Our Work


The mix of activities and strategies employed by Network members and their partners varies within and among the five states, but virtually all of them engage in policy research and development, data collection and analysis, public and policymaker education, community organizing and coalition building, news media outreach, communications, and advocacy.


Years of experience have shown that unless reform advocates cover all these bases, success is likely to remain elusive.


Working together through the Network, participating organizations advance their own work by improving communications among state-based advocates; identifying shared policy goals and benchmarks for measuring progress; encouraging, when appropriate, coordination and collaboration on selected projects and activities; and strengthening the policy research, development and advocacy skills of member groups as well as their institutional capabilities.


The Midwest Democracy Network focuses on achieving these programmatic goals by:


·         Setting a common agenda for democracy reform. Develop, publicize and actively promote a new and promising vision of democratic renewal for the Midwest – a vision that is comprehensive in scope and urgent in tone; reflects and supports the member organizations’ shared democratic values; identifies and documents the political dysfunctions peculiar to each state and common to all; advances practical, politically sensible, and effective reform proposals; highlights best practices within and outside the region; and celebrates and seeks to capitalize on the momentum created by significant reform breakthroughs in Midwest states.


·         Promoting communication among partners and with national organizations. Facilitate information sharing, collective learning, strategic planning, and program evaluation among member organizations through quarterly meetings, regularly scheduled telephone and online conferences, a website, and Network- sponsored policy forums and capacity-building workshops.


·         Developing opportunities for regional collaboration. Provide member organizations with opportunities to help: 1) design and execute large scale, region-wide policy research and development projects which aim to inform the content of their reform proposals and influence the policy decisions of lawmakers, administrative agencies and the courts; and 2) disseminate, publicize and interpret project findings and recommendations in ways that most effectively advance each state’s reform agenda.


·         Diversifying and expanding the reform movement. Take steps to broaden and diversify the region’s reform community, including the Network itself, by aggressively and creatively reaching out to and involving people of color, students, the legal community, scholars, business and labor leaders, journalists, the Midwest’s burgeoning immigrant community, and political practitioners, including reform-minded current and former elected officials and judges.


·         Building the capacity of our partners. Systematically identify the most pressing needs of the Network’s member organizations and help provide the evaluative, planning and technical assistance needed to enhance their institutional capacities (particularly in the areas of strategic planning, fundraising, and staff and board development) and programmatic capacities (particularly in the areas of research, communications, message development, coalition building, and advocacy techniques).





Leah Rush, Executive Director

Phone: 312-235-2855
Email: (JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


Leah joined the Midwest Democracy Network in October 2008. During the decade prior, she worked in several roles at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit online investigative reporting organization. As Director of State Projects for eight years of those years, she initiated and oversaw dozens of reports examining ethics and special interests' influence in statehouses across the nation, covering topics such as conflicts of interest among legislators, spending by industry lobbyists and the financial activity of state political parties. As Editorial Projects Coordinator, Leah supported multiple departments, synchronized copy flow and contributed to the communications scheme for wide-ranging investigations. Projects under her direction garnered a dozen national honors, including three from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors and five consecutive public service awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. Leah graduated cum laude from DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana with honors in English composition.