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Clean Elections - Making a Difference

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the number-two Republican in the Maine Senate, Chandler Woodcock, was attending a political gathering when an industry lobbyist came up to him and asked if he was a “Clean Election” candidate. That is, had he run for office under Maine’s pathbreaking system that gives candidates full public funding if they agree to raise no private money and abide by spending limits? Senator Woodcock said he had, indeed, run “clean.” “Have a wonderful evening,” the lobbyist said as he spun on his heels and walked away.

To Woodcock, this experience shows one critical benefit of Maine’s clean election system: it insulates the public’s representatives from private special interests. “I will not run unless I am a Clean Election candidate,” he said recently.

Woodcock is not alone. The Maine Citizen Leadership Fund did a survey of the 230 candidates who ran clean in the state’s 2002 elections and found that at least one quarter of them would probably not have run for office if they had had to raise private money the old-fashioned way. More than half said the system changed how they campaigned, allowing them to spend more time on issues. “Before, fund raising consumed 50 to 60 percent of my campaign time,” one survey respondent commented. “Now I am able to visit more homes and hold more coffee [meetings] throughout the district. The focus is on the voters and the issues important to them.”

How did the citizens of Maine achieve such a fundamental change in their political process? The answer is it took time and a wide-ranging coalition of activists.

Nine years ago, in March 1994, leaders from a diverse array of citizen groups met in Brunswick, Maine, to talk about their common interest in changing how money affected politics in their state. The leaders came from the Dirigo Alliance, a progressive coalition that focused on recruiting and electing like-minded candidates to the state legislature, and included representatives from Common Cause, the League of Women Voters, and the American Association of Retired People. Church leaders, feminist and peace groups, environmental and labor organizations, gay and civil rights activists, and Ross Perot followers from the fledgling Reform Party rounded out the faces around the table. Some early planning meetings even involved representatives of local affiliates of the Christian Coalition.

Some of the leaders knew each other from years of working together on an array of issues. Others sat across from groups that were usually their political adversaries. They all shared a commitment to addressing the problem of how candidates’ dependence on private money was distorting the democratic process.

A populist movement
The group, which soon took the name Maine Voters for Clean Elections (MVCE), worked hard to appeal to a wide array of constituencies and not just to self-consciously progressive voters. “The issue was mainstream, so we wanted to present a centrist, populist, and commonsensical campaign to Maine voters,” says David Donnelly, who was just 26 years old when he was hired to run the initiative campaign. MVCE built an advisory board of respected state figures and former elected officials, and put two retired businessmen—one the former CEO of the largest private employer in the state (the Bath Iron Works) and the other the former president of the Maine Chamber of Commerce—out in front as spokespeople.

This consensus-building approach explained the outreach to unconventional potential partners like the Christian Coalition, whose adherents include many Main Street small-business owners who are not necessarily happy that Fortune 500 companies buy special favors through campaign contributions. Even though the right-wing group never formally joined MVCE, the early efforts at dialogue convinced Christian Coalition leaders to sit on the fence when the coalition went public with its campaign.

MVCE burst on the Maine political scene in 1995, when 1,100 coalition volunteers managed to collect 65,000 petition signatures in just one day and succeeded in putting the group’s demand for full public financing of elections on the November 1996 ballot. The measure passed by a margin of 56 to 44 percent. For the first time anywhere in the United States, candidates would be able to receive a competitive amount of financing for their campaigns without having to kneel before the wealthy interests and individuals who dominate the electoral process.

Similar coalitions soon formed in other states, assisted by regional organizing networks like Northeast Action, which had fostered the early work in Maine; the Midwest State Center; the Western States Center; and Democracy South. Public Campaign, the national organization dedicated to winning full public financing for all state and federal elections, was also born out of Maine’s success.

Using tactics similar to MVCE, Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections built a volunteer base of more than 4,000 committed activists and passed a similar initiative in 1998 by a 2 to 1 margin. Arizonans for Clean Elections, working in a much more conservative state, eked out a 51 to 49 percent win that same year. And kindred groups began winning similar but more limited legislative victories in states like Vermont (1998), North Carolina (2002), and New Mexico (2003).

The clean election movement has not been without setbacks, such as initiative defeats in Missouri and Oregon in 2000, where business lobbies and conservative ideologues moved to stem the grassroots challenge, often using entrenched incumbents to do their bidding. Clean elections advocates have also had to fight at every step to ensure that their experiments were defended in the courts and properly implemented in the field. In Massachusetts, a recalcitrant house speaker succeeded in overturning the new law. In Connecticut, a clean election measure passed, only to be vetoed by the governor.

Only connect
“We’re making steady progress, nonetheless, because as campaigns get more expensive and big money donors more dominant, more and more people are realizing that we have to make fundamental changes so the public and its interests can get fair representation,” says Deb Ross, Public Campaign’s national field director. “The old notion of ‘only connect’ comes alive for people as they realize that, say, they’re not winning their battle against an incinerator or developer because of the campaign cash those interests can throw at legislators.” To take a vivid example, on Earth Day 2000, leaders of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups gathered on the steps of Connecticut’s state capitol to hail that state’s then-pending clean elections bill as the most important piece of environmental legislation on the docket.

Perhaps the best evidence of the value of coalition efforts for election reform is in the legislative results that are beginning to appear in Arizona and Maine. In both states, legislators are discovering what it is like to no longer be dependent on private contributors for their campaigns. Arizona’s newly elected Governor Janet Napolitano boasts that on the very first day of her administration this January, she signed an executive order creating a discount prescription drug program. “If I had not run clean, I would surely have been paid visits by numerous campaign contributors representing pharmaceutical interests and the like, urging me either to shelve that idea or to create it in their image,” she said in a speech this spring. “All the while, they would be wielding the implied threat to yank their support and shop for an opponent in four years.”

Maine has also made great strides in the health care arena, in large part because three-fourths of its Senate and half of its House ran clean. This spring, they passed legislation forcing the disclosure of secret deals between drug companies and middlemen, and pressuring those companies to be more open in their pricing policies. The state has also enacted a form of universal health coverage that will offer uninsured Mainers subsidized premiums based on their ability to pay. Funding for that program will come, in part, from a tax on insurance companies. Environmentalists also hailed the passage of a bill that makes Maine the first state to commit itself to clear goals to reduce its contribution to global warming, and another that aims to reduce mercury and lead pollution. All of these measures faced much tougher going in the days before clean elections.


Micah L. Sifry is Public Campaign’s senior analyst. To learn more about the battle for Clean Elections in your state and in Washington, DC, go to www.publicampaign.org.

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