It’s a quiet story that most progressive groups operating out of Washington, DC don’t want to talk about: they can’t attract votes anymore. In two recent primary races, in Illinois and Maryland, the more liberal candidate was overwhelmed by the establishment, despite widespread support from labor and online progressive groups. Since a high-water mark in 2006, when netroots activists helped to defeat Joe Lieberman in a Democratic Senate primary in Connecticut, that netroots coalition has absorbed loss after loss. They strike no fear in the hearts of the establishment, because they have proven time and again to be utterly incapable of challenging them. They cannot win even reliably liberal seats at the Congressional level. And so the establishment, confident in their dominance, stops listening to their complaints.
There are lots of reasons for this. Matt Stoller goes over some of them. The current organizers have failed at their tasks, sure. The triviality of progressive media – with their primary focus on a foregone conclusion of a GOP primary election for the last six months rather than building progressive power – and the end of the blogosphere is another major reason. Democratic fecklessness has tarnished a progressive brand with few victories to talk up. A poverty of imagination and new ideas, rather than recycling old ideas from the Heritage Foundation that might just pass Congress, tends to alienate.
But another reason is that these netroots groups may have simply aimed too high. Having demonstrated a total inability to move votes for federal races, they need to regroup, start over, and find ways for whatever it is they bring to the table to have an impact.
Fortunately, that process is happening organically, and without the albatross of groups who have forgotten how to succeed. A small band of foreclosure fraud fighters in Florida, ground zero for the housing crisis, decided to get involved in public service at one of the most basic levels possible. These activists want to become the public official who tracks the transfer of mortgages in their respective counties. Sometimes this is called a register of deeds, or recorder of deeds, or a clerk of court. It’s traditionally a backwater for legacy types who, if they’re lucky, never get their name in the papers. But since the foreclosure fraud crisis, a few of these registers of deeds have shown real leadership in exposing criminal fraud in the mortgage document process. Inspired by their efforts, one of the leading foreclosure fraud activists in the nation, Lisa Epstein, is running for office.
“We are allowing an erosion of everything America holds dear,” Epstein told me in a phone interview from Palm Beach County, Florida, where she will challenge a two-term incumbent for Clerk of Court in a Democratic primary on August 14. “Not just property rights, due process rights – a right guaranteed by the Constitution – and basic fairness. But contract rights. The idea that when you make a contract with a party with superior power and influence, they can’t just make things up and lie, especially when an essential need of survival is at stake. Putting myself at risk is not as important as standing up and saying it was wrong.”
Epstein has never run for public office before. She was a nurse who lost her job and fell into foreclosure, and in the course of her travails figured out that banks were distributing faulty documents to courts, robo-signing affidavits without knowledge of the underlying mortgage files, and illegally foreclosing on families all over the country. She and a few others began investigating the foreclosure mess, literally going through court documents and mortgage records, and they started a cottage industry on the Web. They had no money or power, yet their efforts led to a de facto moratorium of the bulk of the mortgage market, and billions in lawsuits and exposure for the banks.
But it wasn’t enough. The fix was in at the federal level. And Epstein and her colleagues couldn’t get most regulators or law enforcement officials interested in their research. That includes the Clerk of Court in Palm Beach County, Sharon Bock, a longtime employee of that office, who will run for her third term in 2012. “She has been very unresposive to activists or whistleblowers,” Epstein said. “She has been quoted as saying that these issues aren’t her responsibility. It’s disturbing to me on many levels, because almost everyone has said this to me over the last few years!”
So Epstein decided to challenge Bock a few weeks ago. She says she took inspiration from registers of deeds like Jeff Thigpen in North Carolina, John O’Brien in Massachusetts and Curtis Hertel in Michigan, who have done investigations of their office documents and shown the massive amounts of fraud contained therein. “There are less than 10 in the country doing this, defending and protecting the integrity of the land records in their county and speaking out against the erosion of that integrity,” said Epstein. And these relatively minor public officials have had some success. In Michigan, Hertel recently won a case to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to pay back recording fees they claimed an exemption from. In North Carolina, Thigpen sued MERS and leading banks over the fraudulent documents filed at his office. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a handful of registers of deeds have done more for accountability on the banks that most public officials at the state and federal level. These are the role models for Epstein.
Epstein will pay her way onto the ballot: she’s collecting funds for that purpose now. The Democratic primary is August 14, and in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, the primary amounts to the entire election. She has a campaign website up at LisaForClerk.com.
After Epstein entered the race, other activists, who admired her work, contacted her and wanted to pursue the same positions in their areas in Florida. Deb Lilley is running for Clerk of Court in Charlotte County. Matt Gardi will do the same in Monroe County. A third, Bob Sublett of Sarasota County, recently dropped out for personal reasons. But Epstein is hopeful that more citizens will get involved, especially in Florida, where the foreclosure mess has ravaged whole communities and prevented economic recovery.
Epstein has two goals as Clerk of Court. She wants to use the power of the office to expose the dirty dealing by banks and their fraud upon public records. And she wants to use the office as a tool to reduce the burden of austerity measures in her county, which have been prevalent, particularly since the installation of a Republican regime in Florida in 2010. Banks, through setting up their own electronic registry for mortgage transfers, have evaded taxes and fees at the county level, depriving localities of billions. Epstein believes she could recoup some of those losses. “I see every day in the paper, county schools need millions for repairs, we can’t afford it. No third rider on emergency calls for the Fire Department, we can’t afford it,” she said. “Why should we be forced to absorb all the austerity measures?”
Having been slandered already by the state of Florida in an investigation into the firing of two lawyers in the state Attorney General’s office, Epstein is ready for a barrage of criticism. Her opponent, incumbent Sharon Bock, received a $500 donation in March from Lender Processing Services, the notorious document processor which has been sued for fraud on multiple occasions. Two days later, Bock returned the donation. But obviously, there will be a line of financial institutions ready to pay handsomely to assault Epstein, trying to ensure that she does not reach a position of power.
Epstein is ready. “I have been warned that political campaigns can get very dirty and ugly. I’m just going to prepare the best I can but focus on my mission and my goal… I didn’t even consider giving up. Now that you brought it up maybe it would have been easier!”