Public Citizen Activist Interview: Ann Rea

Public Citizen News / May-June 2020

By Rhoda Feng

This article appeared in the May/June 2020 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

Born and raised in New York City, Ann Rea had originally planned to be an artist. She received her bachelor’s of fine arts degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, where she studied painting, printmaking and art history and later obtained a master’s degree in fine art printmaking from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rea went on to pursue a decades-long, art-adjacent career, starting as a freelance textile designer before moving to Jones New York, where she worked for 22 years before retiring in 2009.

Rea became politically galvanized in 2004 after President George W. Bush won his second term. She realized that “voting was no longer enough” and that the more money suffused our elections, the less democratic our government would be. That year, she was recruited by the New Jersey-based organization BlueWaveNJ to head its Electoral Reform Group. She also became a member of the New Jersey chapter of Democracy for America.

In 2007, Rea was part of a coalition including BlueWaveNJ, New Jersey Citizen Action, the Brennan Center for Justice and the NJ Chamber of Commerce that worked to pressure the New Jersey state legislature to enact a pilot program to publicly finance that year’s legislative elections. While the pilot program was not permanently implemented in New Jersey, the experiment showed that this finance system could be used successfully. Public Citizen has since helped enact public financing systems are used now in Washington, D.C., Seattle, Wash., and Howard County, Md. Connecticut, Maine and Arizona have state level systems in place.

Rea went on to join New Jersey for the Overturn of Citizens United as state coordinator in 2015. She is a founding member of Restore Democracy, a working group within the Network for Responsible Public Policy that advocates legislative remedies to get money out of politics. Rea also has worked to get out the vote in numerous local, state and federal elections, focusing on a 2013 ballot question to raise the minimum wage in New Jersey and a 2014 ballot question for paid sick leave in Montclair.

In New Jersey’s Essex County, a coalition of groups, including SOMA Action, the International Human Rights Clinic at Rutgers Law School, BlueWaveNJ and NJ Appleseed, notched a victory in 2019, when Essex County became the first in the state to allow voters to mark a paper ballot by hand, the most secure voting option.

In April 2016, Ann Rea trekked to Washington, D.C., to join thousands of activists from Public Citizen and other organizations in the Democracy Awakening event. The week-long mobilization culminated in a march and called for the protection of voting rights and getting big money out of politics.

“Ann Rea is one of the most tenacious and strategic volunteer leaders I have worked with,” said Aquene Freechild, co-director of Public Citizen’s Democracy Is For People Campaign. “Many people have worked to secure elections in New Jersey and been pushed back over and over again at the state level. Ann saw an opening to focus on the county level. By staying on the case, meeting with local elections officials, building relationships and political power, she was able to achieve locally what was so elusive on the state level.”

Rea’s activism has been guided by the desire to find “work where I could be the most effective” and by the belief that publicly financed elections will lead to a government more responsive to the people. In the coming months, Rea plans to continue pressing for vote by mail, Medicare for All, immigration and prison reform.