Maine Op-Ed Celebrates Clean Elections

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George Christie, Public Campaign board chairman and former campaign director for Maine Voters for Clean Elections published the following op-ed in the Maine Sunday Telegram on April 30. The paper did not post the piece on its website, so here it is in its entirety:


Ten years ago, Maine voters were the first in the nation to adopt a new system for electing their representatives in the state house and governor’s mansion. The law, the Maine Clean Elections Act, was beautifully simple in concept but nonetheless revolutionary for democracy. Candidates for state office would no longer need to rely on special interest lobbyists and big money donors to fund their campaigns. Instead, if they agreed to limit their campaign spending and accept no private contributions, they would have the opportunity to qualify for public funding to run their races. If elected, these candidates would be beholden only to their voters, not to well-heeled donors.

A decade later, the new law has proven its worth over and over again. Since Clean Elections became law, freed from ties to moneyed interests, lawmakers have approved policies that favor voters rather than those of donors. Maine’s Dirigo Health Program, enacted in 2003 by a legislature heavily populated by “clean” lawmakers, is the closest any state has come to providing universal health care. State Representative Marilyn Canavan has said, “I doubt that this bill would ever have seen the light of day under business as usual politics dominated by special interest groups. Instead, we took on the health care industry and insurance companies and adopted a health care plan that serves the people.”

What’s more, Maine’s Clean Elections system has proven extremely popular among candidates. More than three out of four legislators now serving in the house and senate used Clean Elections. This year, of 14 gubernatorial candidates, nine have declared their intention to use Clean Elections. Of the 80 state senate candidates, 71 (89%) have declared their intention to run “clean” and of the 311 candidates for the House of Representatives, 252 (81%) have declared their intent to use Clean Elections.

In Maine, the campaign to enact Clean Elections was a remarkable display of grassroots organization and action. A nonpartisan coalition of organizations, including the League of Women Voters and the AARP, came together to draft a law that treated all qualified candidates fairly. I was proud to have directed the 1995 coalition campaign that recruited 1,100 volunteers who, in just 14 hours, collected the 65,000 signatures to place the proposal on the ballot. Coalition members then contacted these people who had signed the petition. They asked them to become volunteers and urged them to talk to their neighbors, write letters to the editor, and seek local endorsements. Maine voters approved the ballot initiative, 56% to 44%.

The organizations that worked so hard to pass the law remain united under the umbrella of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, led by the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund and the Dirigo Alliance. These groups have successfully defended the law in federal court and have fended off legislative attempts to repeal or weaken the law.

By showing that Clean Elections is a practical, proven system, Maine has become a beacon for the rest of the nation. National media headlines focus on the scandals of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the campaign finance shenanigans of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX), who recently announced his resignation, and of convicted felon and former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-CA) and their ilk. Meanwhile, with the help of Public Campaign, a number of states and localities are following Maine’s lead and doing something about the scandal of pay-to-play election systems by enacting programs like Clean Elections.

Consider the example of Connecticut. Last December, the state legislature and Republican governor, M. Jodi Rell, approved a system of full public financing for statewide and legislative races. The new law also includes a ban on donations from lobbyists and state contractors. This followed several years of revelations of Connecticut’s own Abramoff-DeLay-Cunningham-like scandals surrounding the former governor, Republican John Rowland, who became infamous for his acceptance of gifts from donors such as hot tubs and trips. He is out on parole now after serving ten months in federal prison. Corruption, ethics, and campaign scandals have also plagued two Connecticut big city mayors, the state treasurer, and a state senator.

The voters of Arizona enacted a Clean Elections law in 1998. New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Vermont have Clean Money systems for some races, and the municipalities of Portland, Oregon and Albuquerque, New Mexico recently approved full public financing for citywide races, the first via a vote in City Council, the second by citizen initiative. Most recently, the California Assembly approved a bill providing full pubic financing of elections. In all, advocates in 30 states are working to pass Clean Elections systems.

Meanwhile, at the federal level, Rep. John Tierney (D-MA) and Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) are sponsors of a Clean Elections bill, H.R. 3099, which would bring a system similar to Maine’s to congressional campaigns. At this time neither of Maine’s congressmen are a co-sponsor on the federal Clean Elections bill. Since they know how much Clean Elections is benefiting their own state, Reps. Tom Allen and Michael Michaud could provide an authentic voice to this debate by co- sponsoring this bill to bring Clean Elections to the national scene, where we need it most. Republican Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins should also show leadership, and, in the spirit of bipartisanship, find some like-minded Democratic colleagues to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

There is a saying that politics is doing what you can, where you are, with what you have. Those of us who worked to bring Clean Elections to Maine did what we could to begin cleaning up the legal scandal of money in politics. But if Maine is to continue to serve as a leader on campaign finance reform, our congressional delegation should take the lead in bringing Clean Elections to national politics. Right now, in Washington, politics is done the old way—too many candidates going hat in hand, to the big money interests, beholden not to voters but to political donors. A case in point are the pay-to-play politics practiced by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and soon-to-be ex-Congressman Tom DeLay, in which legislative favors were traded regularly for campaign contributions and other favors. The experience of Maine with Clean Elections shows there is a better way to elect candidates, and it works.