Maine’s Clean Election Law, a citizen initiative passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1996, goes into effect for the 2002 governor’s race, establishing public financing for candidates. Political observers are beginning to realize it may cause a revolution.
There’s an excellent possibility that a number of minor-party and independent candidates, the alternatives to what last year’s Green Party presidential nominee Ralph Nader calls the Democratic-Republican “duopoly,” will be financed for their campaigns beyond their boldest dreams of a few years ago.
“It means the press can’t censor third parties anymore,” said Patricia LaMarche, the Green Party’s 1998 candidate for governor. “By buying the space in the media we’ll have credibility. Imagine having thirty-five times the money to spend!”
And imagine the political nightmares the duopoly’s leaders are having.
“It’s the undermining of the two-party system,” said Jim Mitchell, lobbyist and former head of the Maine Democratic Party. The possible big-time financing of third-party and independent campaigns, he felt, is like “a movement to a parliamentary system.”
Of course, Democratic and Republican candidates, too, can and may take advantage of public financing. And in this arena the new law changes the gladiatorial fight in two ways.
First, if a minor primary candidate can qualify for public campaign funding, then she or he can possibly buy enough name recognition to be catapulted into the position of a real contender. Public financing “will make a big difference” in who’s in the race, said Jane Amero, an unsuccessful First District congressional candidate in 2000, who is thinking of running for the Republican nomination for governor.
Second, the new law prohibits contributions to traditionally financed candidates to no more than $500 per election from any source (Clean Election candidates can’t take campaign contributions beyond the $5 qualifying ones). Some political observers think this $500 limit could also effect a revolution. Previously, political action committees could give $5,000 and individuals $1,000.
“Five hundred dollars a pop will limit the money that can be raised,” said longtime Democratic fundraiser Anthony Buxton. He believes even the best-known candidates may have trouble raising big money.
This, of course, is the idea behind public financing: to lessen the impact of big money on all candidates by freeing them from raising funds from special interests and wealthy individuals. The public money temptation tends to attracts people to the Clean Election system; the $500 limit tends to force people into it.
But the biggest revolution may be in whom the Democratic and Republican primary winners face in the November election. The kind of people who used to run their hopeless small-party or independent gubernatorial campaigns for $10,000 to $25,000 may be eligible to receive up to $1.2 million from the public treasury. That may be enough to make them competitive with the nominees of the two big parties, as independent Angus King, our governor, proved in 1994 when he dumped over $1 million of his own money into the race.
Here’s how the new system will work, according to the preliminary numbers provided by the state Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices, the agency that oversees the Clean Election Law. In running a Clean Election scheme, the commission already has behind it a successful experience in the 2000 legislative races. In them, no revolution occurred, though the impact of money on elections was lessened and more people ran for office — just what the law aimed for. However, the financial numbers in legislative races are tiny compared to the gubernatorial campaigns.
Green's Carter: Maine's publicly financed governor?
First, to be publicly financed in your gubernatorial campaign, you have to collect 2,500 contributions of exactly $5 each from registered Maine voters. The contributions can be from voters of any party or the unenrolled. You have from Nov. 1, 2000, to March 16, 2002, to get this $12,500 together if you’re a party candidate. Independents have until June 2, 2002.
A gubernatorial candidate is allowed to raise an additional $50,000 in seed money — it can only come from individuals, and there is a $100 limit per contribution — to pay people to solicit that $12,500 in $5 contributions.
If you are running in a political party, once you qualify you get $105,000 initially and up to a total of $315,000 (three times the initial distribution of funds) for your primary campaign, depending on how much an opponent who is not in the Clean Election system spends. In other words, the Clean Election fund matches your traditionally financed opponent up to that $315,000 ceiling.
If you are the primary winner, you then get $287,000 initially for the general-election campaign. However, if an opponent who raises the money the old-fashioned way spends above this sum — and this seems likely in the governor’s race — you can receive up to $861,000 total for the general election. Thus, the grand total a party candidate can receive is $1.2 million if his or her traditionally financed opponent spends up to this amount. In the past four general elections the successful gubernatorial campaigns on average spent $1.3 million.
But look what will happen to the kind of candidate who was very marginally financed in the past — people like Jonathan Carter and Pat LaMarche of the Green Party. They respectively received 6 and 7 percent of the gubernatorial vote in 1994 and 1998, spending an average of $25,000 each. And then there’s William Clarke, a conservative independent, who got 4 percent of the vote in 1998 after spending only $8,000.
Next year, under public funding, candidates like these, if they qualify with $5 donations, can get up to up to $861,000 if they are independents and, theoretically at least, there will be up to $1.2 million available for the candidate of the Green Party, the only official party besides the Democrats and Republicans. It’s unlikely a Green Party primary would be so expensive as to trigger all the matching funds, but, still, $105,000 given to each Green primary candidate is mind-boggling for the Greens — and for their major-party opponents.
In order to pay for all this, the ethics and election practices commission expects to have $10 million in its kitty to cover publicly funded gubernatorial and legislative races. The legislative races are expected to need no more than $1 million. The funds will come from legislative appropriations, an income-tax check-off, and interest on the $4 million already in the bank.
Public money seen as Green
When Democratic Party insiders look at public campaign money, they tend to see Green, Green, Green. “This could make a significant difference in terms of the Green Party,” said Mike Brennan, a former Portland legislator, putting it mildly. With hundreds of thousands to spend, “they could easily do 15 to 20 percent. They might even do better,” he said.
The Democrats tend to see the Green Party in Maine not as a potential winner of the governorship, but — as they saw Nader vis-à-vis their candidate Al Gore in the presidential election — as a “spoiler” for them. Lobbyist Phil Merrill, a former state senator and Democratic primary gubernatorial candidate, even saw a well-financed Green Independent Party candidate (that’s the party’s official name) as “a threat” to the man he is supporting, Second District congressman John Baldacci, the Democratic frontrunner (see the story on the gubernatorial horse race).
The Greens have shown that they take votes from the Democrats’ left wing. Both Brennan and Merrill feel that this threat exists regardless of the Green candidate, though they seem most worried about the high-profile Green Party politician Jonathan Carter, whom top Democrats blame for taking enough votes from their candidates to deny them the governorship in 1994 and a victory in a 1992 Second District congressional race.
Carter is seriously considering another run for governor. Although he has troubled relations with a few members of the Green leadership, no other Green appears prominent enough to deny him the nomination in a primary. Patricia LaMarche said she is not planning to run and is “intensely loyal” to Carter, her political mentor. “He’s a great man,” she said.
“I would love to be governor,” Carter said, “so I could appoint a high-quality administration. For example, I’d appoint a conservation biologist as head of the Department of Conservation instead of a paper-company executive.”
Carter also talks about other radical actions such as instituting a Canadian-style, government-run health-care system, reducing school class size and paying teachers more, and “a whole new economy based on a visionary, restorative agenda” — restoring the environment and small businesses, for example. These are positions that make Democratic liberals salivate.
Carter, who also is entertaining the possibility of running as an independent, says he will make up his mind “after I see how the field plays out.” If former State Senator Chellie Pingree, Baldacci’s more liberal opponent, looked like she could beat him for the Democratic nomination, Carter suggested, he might not run. To be assured of public financing, though, he’d probably have to start collecting the $5 contributions before the end of the year.
While some of Baldacci’s prominent supporters expect that he needs, and has the fundraising capacity, to run a $2 million campaign, which means traditional financing, Baldacci said that he was “seriously looking at” opting into the public system. He said he earnestly had to consider Maine’s voters’ preference for public funding. A referendum, he said, was like a “statewide town meeting.” He perhaps also is mindful of the difficulties of raising money with a $500 contribution limit. Pingree said she was “leaning toward running a traditional campaign” since she needed a lot of money in the primary to overcome Baldacci’s greater name recognition.
Republicans at the public trough
Both in-state and nationally, Republicans have been more skeptical about using taxpayer money to support political candidates. However, “It’s conceivable we’ll have a general election where the Republican is publicly financed and the Democrat is not,” said an amused Frank O’Hara, a former speechwriter for Democratic Governor Joseph Brennan.
A scenario with lots of Republicans with their hands in the taxpayer’s pocket seems likely because the many individuals mentioned as possible Republican primary contenders are not as well known as the Democratic candidates. Also, given a large number of candidates beating the same financial bushes and the new $500 contribution limit, they might find it hard to raise money the traditional way.
“I doubt very much that any Republican candidate would run without being publicly funded,” commented State Senator Peter Mills, who is actively considering a gubernatorial race himself.
The lack of strong GOP possibilities at the moment is a topic of conversation at the State House. But Douglas Hodgkin, Bates College political scientist and Republican activist, feels that writing off the Republicans in the governor’s race is premature precisely because of public financing. “All of these candidates are viable,” he said, speaking of any candidate who accepts the financing. “They can buy name recognition.”
Hodgkin also thinks qualifying for public money is not going to be that easy. Like many other political observers, he feels that a Joe or Jane off the street hoping to put his wife or husband on a fat campaign payroll is unlikely to collect 2,500 contributions. But “we could wind up with a multiplicity of candidates,” he said, because the system “favors some kind of citizen-based, grass-roots effort,” and organizations such as the Green Party or, at the other end of the political spectrum, a Christian right-wing group, have the capacity to collect many small contributions.
Because organized groups have this advantage, Hodgkin sees the governor’s race possibly becoming a battleground for candidates who don’t expect to win but who could get an enormous amount of well-funded publicity for their single-issue causes.
Independents out of the woodwork
Public funding is beckoning, but just how many people will come out of the political woodwork to use it? That is the big unknown, especially in terms of independent candidates.
Michael Heath, director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said he doesn’t know of any Christian-right candidates thinking of running, but he predicts that with public financing the governor’s race “is going to be wild. I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be someone from right of center.” Speaking of right of center, William Clarke has said he would not run next year.
The field could get so crowded with independents that the next governor could win with far less than a majority. King won in 1994 with only 35 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating former Governor Joseph Brennan, the Democratic nominee. The Republican in that race, Susan Collins — now a United States senator — got only 23 percent.
The credibility of Democratic and Republican candidates for governor was further weakened in 1998 when the two historic parties put up only token opposition to King. The Republican nominee, former congressman James Longley Jr., only received 19 percent of the vote. The Democratic nominee, lawyer Tom Connolly, only received 12 percent.
Shuffled in the same political deck with public financing, another big wild card in the governor’s race — and loophole in the Clean Election Law — is the possible growth of so-called “independent expenditures” to take the place of special-interest and wealthy-individual money now prohibited or limited under the new campaign law. In the 2000 legislative races, special-interest groups supposedly independent of the candidate spent at least $100,000 (it’s still being counted by state officials) to promote several candidacies through brochures, big newspaper ads, and other media.
In the past, when groups or individuals could donate, respectively, $5,000 or $1,000 directly to the candidate, this type of expenditure had not been a factor in legislative races. William Hain, the ethics and election practices commission’s director, fears it will increase in both legislative and gubernatorial races in 2002.
There are several bills in the current legislative session to tighten up on these expenditures, as well as to change the Clean Election Law in other ways, but the House chair of the Legal and Veterans Affairs Committee, John Tuttle, a Democrat, said he expects the legislature to “do a study over the summer” on proposed changes to the system. “We are very wary about changing a law passed by citizen initiative,” he said.
For years, voters in political polls have expressed their disgust with politics as usual, especially with the power of big money to influence candidates. Citizens initiated the Clean Election Law to change the system. For the governor’s race the system is about to change. We just don’t know what the change will produce. But it is quite possible it will be a revolution.
Lance Tapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2001 The Phoenix Media/Communications Group