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Public Election Money Levels the Field
Published on Tuesday, November 7, 2006 by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania)
Public Election Money Levels the Field
by Edgar Bronfman Sr. and Deborah L. Simpson

One of us is the retired CEO of a Fortune 500 company who has contributed generously to political campaigns. The other is a single mother, a former waitress, and current legislator from Maine. It wouldn't seem as if we have much in common, but we are both passionate about the need for publicly financed elections.

In 2004, the cost of winning a U.S. Senate seat averaged more than $7 million; the price of a House seat was more than $1 million. Candidates spend huge amounts of time calling affluent donors (like one of the authors of this essay) or special-interest groups. The time spent "dialing for dollars" is time candidates don't spend talking to ordinary constituents. Most candidates hate this trade-off, but it is one they have to make to win.

Fortunately, that's not the way the system works in Maine, where one of us has successfully run three races for the Legislature and is campaigning again this year. As a waitress and part-time college student, in that first election there were no deep pockets to draw on, or even an idea of how to find them. All that candidate Simpson had were a lot of neighbors and friends. They provide many of the $5 contributions that Maine's Clean Elections program requires to qualify for public funding to run her campaigns. In exchange, she has agreed to abide by strict spending limits and not raise any more private money. Under the law, if a privately funded candidate outspends a publicly funded one, more funds are given to the Clean Elections candidate to ensure a level playing field.

By taking much of the private money out of politics, Maine took the focus off big donors and shifted it to all voters. This means that people like Edgar Bronfman are constituents like everybody else, with an idea to share or a problem that needs solving. The volume of people's voices is not dependent on the size of their wallets. In Maine, a waitress and a millionaire may shop at different stores and stand on different sides of the counter, but when it comes to our elected officials, they are equals.

Clean Elections is a practical, proven reform that has been in place in Maine and Arizona since 2000 and for judicial races in North Carolina since 2004. Five other states, including New Jersey, and two cities have adopted it for all or some of their races. Getting Clean Elections in place can be tough, since the lawmakers often prefer to deal with the fund-raising devil they know. In Maine and Arizona, voters approved these systems via initiative. However, scandal can provide a push.

Last year, after months of revelations of pay-to-play schemes in Connecticut surrounding former Gov. John Rowland, the current Republican governor and Democratic legislature approved Clean Elections for statewide and legislative offices. This marked the first time that state politicians had approved such a system for their races.

With the wave of scandals surrounding convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the will is there to take up public financing of elections at the federal level. U.S. Reps. John Tierney (D., Mass.) and Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) are lead sponsors of legislation that would establish public financing of elections for House races. A similar bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate soon.

Clean Elections levels the playing field so that a CEO and a waitress are on equal footing. In a country built on the value of one person, one vote, that makes a lot of sense.

Edgar Bronfman Sr. is a philanthropist and former CEO of Seagram's Co. Deborah L. Simpson is a Democratic state representative in Maine.

© 2006 Philadelphia Inquirer


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