The advice came casually from a customer she was waiting on, and while Deborah Simpson brushed it aside, she never forgot it.
''You should run for office,'' the diner at TJ's restaurant in Auburn, Maine, told her one day in 1998. Simpson, a single mother with a 6-year-old son, juggling night school and waitressing, loved politics, but figured she would never be able to raise the money she'd need to run for a seat in the Legislature.
Last year, she reconsidered. The state's newly enacted Clean Elections Act would provide money for her to run, and Simpson figured she could campaign by talking about issues, instead of asking people to write her checks.
Representative Deborah Simpson says she would not have been able to run for office without Maine's newly enacted law. (Globe Photo/Joel Page)
''I didn't want to be one of those people who keeps complaining about politics but doesn't do anything,'' said Simpson, 38. ''With the Clean Elections, it seemed less daunting a task to run. I could do what I can do, which is talk to people, as opposed to raising money, which in my life, I didn't have any experience in.''
With $4,400 from the state, Simpson beat more experienced contenders, making her one of 62 legislative candidates to run under the new public financing law and win.
As the Massachusetts Legislature heads for a showdown over its own public-finance law, with powerful incumbents plotting to gut the measure and watchdog groups lobbying to keep it, Maine provides some instructive lessons on the public financing experience. While the law has not revolutionized the state's election process, it has clearly drawn new candidates into politics and, many say, resulted in a Legislature freer of special interest influence.
After enactment of the Clean Elections Law, the number of candidates seeking House and Senate seats in Maine jumped from 305 in 1998 to 352 in 2000. Of those 352, almost one-third - 116 - ran under the public-financing system. That number included 37 incumbents who were originally elected with private money.
Many of the challengers were newcomers like Simpson and Edward M. Youngblood, a 61-year-old bank executive, who said he never considered running for office until a few Republican state senators approached him about taking on Richard Ruhlin, a powerful 16-year incumbent Democrat.
Youngblood initially demurred, but the Clean Elections Act made him reconsider. As a banker, Youngblood believed he could easily have raised enough cash to be competitive, even against a veteran like Ruhlin. But that would mean spending valuable campaign hours hitting up donors rather than talking with voters.
So he carefully budgeted the $32,000 the state provided for his Senate campaign. Then he knocked on doors all over the Bangor-area district, assuring everyone that he was free of special-interest money and influence, he said.
''I really played it as a campaign issue,'' Youngblood said. ''I wanted to be able to say, `I'm not accountable to anyone but you the voter.' Obviously it worked well - I got elected.''
Maine's Clean Elections candidates ended up winning about as often as traditionally financed candidates. Some are crediting the system with helping Republicans pick up three Senate seats, giving the party joint control of that chamber.
''It actually worked very well for a first time with such an innovative system,'' said Anthony Corrado, a government professor at Colby College who specializes in campaign finance. ''There was significant participation across the board.''
As in the Massachusetts system, which is scheduled to go into effect with next year's elections, candidates for the Maine Legislature in 2000 were able to qualify for public money if they complied with strict fund-raising limits. The Maine system was approved by ballot initiative in 1996 after proponents stressed that public financing would encourage more people to run for office and reduce the influence of special interest money. Responding to the same arguments, Massachusetts voters pushed through a similar system by a 2-1 margin.
Despite the fears of some critics, the advent of Clean Elections didn't bring a wholesale cleanout of the Legislature. Youngblood was one of just four publicly financed challengers to topple an incumbent. Many other legislators were forced out by term limits last year, and 22 Clean Elections candidates won open seats.
''It doesn't guarantee you a win, but it puts you on the playing field,'' said Nick Nyhart, executive director of Public Campaign, a Washington-based group that is coordinating Clean Elections-style campaign-finance reform in some 35 states.
The result, however, is a Legislature that is freer of special interests than ever before, proponents say. Seventeen of Maine's 35 senators ran with public money. In the House, 45 of 151 members ran under Clean Elections.
''We have people who were elected who don't feel beholden to the lobbyists,'' said Maine House majority whip William S. Norbert, a Portland Democrat who won reelection under Clean Elections last year after serving one term.
But the law is not perfect, and money still plays a role. Interest groups whose influence over the campaign process was cut short may have spent even more money on so-called ''issue ads,'' many of which were direct attacks on candidates, Norbert said.
Some groups, including the Maine Civil Liberties Union, say that the strict and complex campaign reporting Clean Elections requires may have discouraged some potential candidates. And some candidates using traditional funding appear to have intentionally put off reporting campaign spending until the last minute, which delayed their Clean Elections opponents from receiving matching funds.
A good number of lawmakers still oppose taxpayer-financed political campaigns, but most in Maine agree that while the Clean Elections Act will be revised before 2002, it's there to stay.
To be sure, comparisons between Maine and Massachusetts have some limitations. Massachusetts has usually had fewer legislative challenges than Maine, so its politics could change more dramatically under Clean Elections. Maine also has term limits, triggering regular turnover in the Legislature. And unlike legislators in Massachusetts, who are full-time and well paid, lawmakers in Maine only work part time.
Moreover, Maine's entire campaign financing system cost the state less than $875,000 last year - a far cry from the more than $30 million that Clean Elections advocates say the system will probably cost next year in the Bay State.
The Massachusetts Legislature plans to take up proposed changes to Clean Elections in the next few weeks. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran has signalled he may torpedo major provisions of the law, despite widespread public support. .
David Donnelly, director of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, says the message from Maine is clear: Clean Elections drew more candidates to run for office, with none of the fringe candidacies or extremist party takeovers envisioned by opponents.
''The sky didn't fall down in Maine,'' Donnelly said. ''Maine and Massachusetts are similar in one very important respect: Voters approved comprehensive public financing laws in both states, and voters in both states want these laws to be effectively implemented.''
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