The first thing visitors to Maine's statehouse in Augusta notice is that one-third of the historic building is boarded up, sealed off, and undergoing a late-summer renovation. It's a fitting parallel to the historic transformation taking place within the legislature itself: Maine's Clean Election Act, the first campaign finance reform of its kind, has allowed one-third of the candidates for state office this fall to forgo private fundraising in exchange for a publicly funded campaign. In all, 115 of the state's 353 candidates are "running clean"--vowing not to accept any private money or contribute any personal money to their campaign. Proponents hope this new alternative will convince more people to seek office, diminish the influence of money in politics, and break the grip of special interests. Its early success with candidates, voters, and the courts suggests that this bold experiment in electoral politics could become a model for campaign finance reform. Glenn Cummings was the first candidate to qualify for public funding. A Democrat running for the state house of representatives for the first time, Cummings had to collect the signatures of 50 registered voters who agreed to write $5 checks to Maine's Clean Election Fund in order to qualify for up to $12,000 in state funds. He did so in two days. "It was one of the easiest things I've ever done," Cummings says from his office overlooking Casco Bay, where he runs a nonprofit Portland community organization. "Friends and family were initially shocked that they couldn't give money. Then they were pleasantly surprised." He got a similar reception from voters. When Cummings held an informational meeting in his district to explain that he would not seek private money, the audience stood and applauded.
As a clean candidate, Cummings is part of a group that includes incumbents and challengers, progressives and conservatives, major- and minor-party hopefuls, skilled fundraisers and novices, and a significant number of women and poor candidates who could not have run for office without public funding. Many will run competitive races, for in addition to providing ample campaign budgets (senate candidates can receive nearly $40,000), the Clean Election Act also helps to ensure that they won't simply be outspent. As a bookend to public funding, the law limits "traditional" candidates to $250 contributions, where in the past they could collect up to $1,000 from individuals and $5,000 from political action committees and corporations; it provides matching funds for clean candidates who get outspent.
The law is already having the effects its organizers intended. The number of contested primaries rose 40 percent this year, reversing a long decline. In races for open seats, where clean candidates stand the best chance of winning, more than 60 percent include at least one clean candidate. Nearly half of all senate candidates--the most expensive race to run--are running clean. And women, who historically have less access to money, are running clean races at a rate of 44 percent, nearly double that of their male counterparts.
Most encouraging, say observers, is the excitement with which all sorts of candidates are adopting the new system. "One thing we're learning is that nobody really liked the old system," says Alison Smith, co-chair of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. "Everybody felt tarnished, sick of the constant fundraising, and tired of constantly being shaken down for money." While new candidates and those who lack a fundraising network would seem the most obvious beneficiaries of the new law, a surprising number of incumbents have chosen to run clean as well. The most commonly cited reason is a desire to avoid the ethical conflicts that accompany large campaign contributions. But many incumbents have found that running clean provides additional benefits. Several successful fundraisers who have opted to run clean campaigns--and accept less money than they could have raised privately--are doing so simply to save time. "I used to have to write fundraising letters, make calls, attend fundraising events, write thank-you letters, and fill out campaign finance forms," says Sharon Treat, a three-term Democratic senator. "No more. Now it's simple. I'm done fundraising."
See the Campaign Finance Special Section!
Treat and others like her are discovering that the time they save benefits their constituents by allowing them to concentrate more closely on issues that affect their district. "When I had to raise money, I had to look far more broadly than my constituent base," says senator Susan Longley, a Democrat seeking her fourth term. "It was humbling for me to realize that I'd really had to develop a roving eye. Now, my entire focus is on my district. I'm learning more about what issues I need to stress. One thing I've noticed traveling around my district is that a disproportionate number of my constituents are minimum-wage workers for an out-of-district franchise. These aren't people who are vocal about their problems. But by spending more time with them, I've realized that this is an issue I need to bring to the legislature."
The Beginning of Reform
Maine's Clean Election Act had its genesis in the early 1990s, when the Maine Citizen Leadership Fund began tracing the source of campaign money. The movement picked up speed in 1994, after conservative Republicans took over the state senate in an expensive election bankrolled by a conspicuous number of corporations and wealthy donors. "That opened a lot of people's eyes to the problem of money," says George Christie, an architect of the reform. The following year, Maine voters expressed their displeasure by passing term limits. But with guidance from Northeast Action's Money and Politics Project, Christie and other organizers sought a more constructive solution. They formed the Dirigo Alliance, a coalition of 14 progressive groups whose original aim was to strengthen progressive candidate recruitment. As participants saw how even incremental reform was thwarted by special interests, the group began to focus on the idea of campaign finance reform. According to Christie, who now heads the Dirigo Alliance, "We wanted reform that would get money out of the system, put grass roots back in, pass at the ballot box, and stand up to the Supreme Court's Buckley v. Valeo decision." The coalition spent two years drafting the referendum. They put their combined strength to use when it came time to present the issue to voters. In a single day, more than 1,000 volunteers collected the 65,000 signatures necessary to put campaign finance reform on the ballot. It was presented to the public as a way to "give a pink slip to special interests."
Voters responded overwhelmingly. The measure swept through by a 56 to 44 percent margin. The need for reform was reinforced almost immediately by a landmark bill that passed during the subsequent legislative session. In January the Democratic leadership decided to take up the controversial issue of putting price controls on prescription drugs. Pressure from the powerful pharmaceutical industry soon followed, and hefty campaign contributions were one of the first weapons that lobbyists employed. "Historically, the pharmaceutical industry had given about equally to Republican and Democratic leadership committees," says senate majority leader Chellie Pingree, who led the initiative. "When we raised the issue of price controls, we were immediately cut off. This year they are only giving to Republicans. I think the passage of the Clean Election Act freed up some of our legislators to feel less vulnerable about voting for the plan. One reason the prescription drug plan passed in Maine and not at the federal level is that money is less of a factor here. If it weren't, then passing that bill might not have been possible."
While ridding politics of money and keeping special interests at bay were important facets of the reform, organizers also hoped that clean elections would help candidate recruitment. "Term limits are good at getting people out of office," explains Smith of Maine Citizens for Clean Elections. "Clean elections are a way of getting people in." Leaders in both parties agree that the choice of running clean has helped them recruit candidates for office. "If we have people who are on the fence," Pingree says, "we can tell them, look, you don't have to raise money. For a lot of people, that's the scariest part of running for office." Republicans have been particularly adept at using clean elections to recruit candidates. Jolene Lovejoy, a selectwoman from Rumford, is a good example. Lovejoy was already pondering a run for the state house of representatives when she received two packets in the mail. One was from the Republican leadership, and the other was from the state ethics commission, which oversees Maine's campaign finance laws. "When I found out about it, I decided that I'd either run clean or not at all," says Lovejoy. "I raise funds for all sorts of charitable organizations. But the idea of asking for money for myself somehow seemed inappropriate. I realized I had a chance to be able to go to the statehouse and not be committed to anyone other than the people in my district."
Party leaders have also discovered that, even when a challenger can't win a race, public financing can still be an effective way of promoting a party's issues. In heavily partisan districts, it is not uncommon to nominate a ballot-line holder who will represent the party on the ticket without mounting an actual campaign. Clean elections make challenging even a powerful incumbent so easy that many of these onetime straw candidates are now mounting serious campaigns and, if not actually winning the race, nonetheless changing the shape of the debate. "Even in areas where we may not win, we're going to run credible, competitive, $14,000 campaigns that focus on solid Democratic issues like education, health care, and fighting for families," says Michael Bigos, chief of staff to the senate majority leader. "In the past, all we could have mounted is a $200 campaign with a dozen hand-painted signs. Clean elections allow us to build issue recognition even more than name recognition. Over a couple of election cycles, I think we can raise issues and help frame the debate in places where today we can't even compete."
As soon as the Clean Election Act passed, the National Right to Life PAC and the Maine Civil Liberties Union challenged it in the courts. They argued that the contribution limits restrained free speech; that the law's provision of matching funds to clean candidates who were being outspent was unconstitutional; and that running clean conferred a "dirty" status on traditionally funded opponents. A federal district court upheld the law and emphasized two points in its decision: The contribution limit does not prevent candidates from mounting viable campaigns, and the voluntary system of matching public funds does not discourage traditional candidates from seeking office.
"Essentially, the judge ruled that you do not have a constitutional right to outspend your opponent," says Anthony Corrado, a professor of government at Colby College who served as an expert witness in support of the law. In fact, it is uncertain whether running clean actually makes an opponent look dirty in voters' eyes. Polls say the effect is negligible. But clean candidates routinely describe a groundswell of voter support similar to the one that greeted John McCain in the Republican primary. Even the lead plaintiff in the suit against clean money, Democratic senator Beverly Daggett, eventually did an about-face and announced she would run clean, too. Many believe they can use the issue to their advantage. "My first round of campaign literature hardly mentioned it," Cummings concedes. "But when I saw how it registered with voters, I put it prominently on the literature." Lovejoy devised an even more clever tactic: She attached her card to miniature bars of soap and passed them out to voters.
Maine's clean-election law still has hurdles to overcome. Recently, the state ethics commission was forced to address the question of whether clean candidates could still raise money for leadership PACs, which supporters argued was necessary for anyone who held leadership aspirations. The commission found that doing so didn't violate the letter of the law. But many felt it violated the spirit of running clean. It also remains to be seen if the money provided to candidates is really enough to run a competitive campaign. Incumbents still have an advantage in name recognition that can be difficult for a clean opponent to overcome, even if the incumbent runs clean.
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to broad-based acceptance of public funding is an electoral quirk that couldn't have been foreseen at the time the law was written. Most observers agree that the true test for clean elections will be the governor's race. Gubernatorial candidates first become eligible for public funding in 2002. As in house and senate races, the dollar amount provided to gubernatorial candidates is 75 percent of the average spent during the previous two election cycles. However, because no candidate seriously challenged incumbent Governor Angus King during the last race in 1998, campaign spending was unusually low. Factored into the public-funding equation, this pegged the level of public funding at $700,000 for a clean candidate, a figure that many believe is too low to beat a privately financed opponent. Thus, when King's term-limited seat comes open in 2002, it will make a publicly funded challenge far less likely to succeed.
Nonetheless, the fact that the clean-money law seems to be working exactly as planned has most observers excited about its long-term prospects. "The early experience has been encouraging," says Corrado. "Many people are surprised at how well these new contribution levels have worked and at the new faces we're seeing run for office. You don't hear reports of traditional candidates having trouble raising money under the new limits. Candidates are instead finding that they have to broaden their base of support and reach out to individual donors instead of PACs."
Precisely the sort of change that organizers had hoped to encourage. It will take several election cycles to determine whether clean candidates can keep the Clean Election Fund running smoothly. Supporters caution against drawing too many conclusions from the results of one election. Clean candidates must learn to operate as successful legislators once they're elected. Cummings, who has leadership aspirations, hopes that the ability to mobilize grass-roots supporters and help others get elected clean will one day replace fundraising as the necessary qualification for party leadership. To date, it hasn't. But the resonance publicly funded campaigns has among candidates and voters is already transforming Maine's political landscape. "Almost everyone benefits by getting money out of politics," says Pingree. "Under this system, doing so means returning to a more representative style of politics. We're experiencing an old-fashioned style of campaigning, with candidates going door-to-door, focusing on the issues. That is the part of politics that I think voters still really value." ¤